Melancthon Taylor Woolsey



Woolsey had greatly improved himself not only in his profession, but in his mind generally, during his different Mediterranean cruises. Shortly after the constitution was paid off, he repaired to Washington, where he reamined some time, employed in preparing a system of signals. The year 1808 was one during which the relations between this country and England very seriously menaced war. The government, in anticipation of such an event, saw the necessity of making some provisions of defence on lakes Ontario and Champlain. Woolsey, during his stay in Washington, had so far gained the confidence of the Department, that he was selected to superintend the construction of, and to command the first regular armaments ever made under the Union, on these inland waters. It was decided to build a brig of sixteen guns on Lake Ontario, and two gun-boats on Champlain. Five officers were detached for this service, including Lieut. Woolsey, who had command on both lakes. Lieut. John Montressor Haswell was sent to Champlain, with Messrs. Walker and Hall, while Woolsey took with himself, to Ontario, Messrs. Gamble and Cooper. It is now believed that all these gentlemen are now dead, with the exception of the last, who is here making an imperfect record of some of the service of his old friend and messmate.

The port of Oswego was selected as the place where the brig was to be constructed. The contractors were Christian Bergh and Henry Eckford, both of whom afterwards became known to the country as eminent constructors and shipwrights. The brig was called the Oneida, and she was laid down on the eastern point that formed one side of the outlet of the river. In 1808, Oswego was a mere hamlet of some twenty, or five-and-twenty, houses, that stood on a very irregular sort of a line, near the water, the surrounding country, for thirty or forty miles, being very little more than a wilderness. On the eastern bank of the river, and opposite to the village, or on the side of the stream on which the Oneida was built, there was but a solitary log-house, and the ruins of the last English fort.

The arrival of a party of officers, together with a strong gang of ship-carpenters, riggers, blacksmiths, &c., produced a great commotion in that retired hamlet, though port it was, and made a sensible change in its condition. For the first time, money began to be seen in the place, the circulating medium having previously been salt. The place was entirely supported by the carrying of the salt manufactured at Salina. Eight or ten schooners and sloops were employed in this business, and the inhabitants of Oswego then consisted of some four or five traders, who were mostly ship-owners, the masters and people of the vessels, boatmen who brought the salt down the river, a few mechanics, and a quarter-educated personage who called himself doctor.

The reader can form an idea of the knowledge of the men who then practiced medicine, and who called themselves "doctors" on the frontiers, by the following anecdote. Colonel, then Ensign, Gardner of the "old sixth," had been a student of medicine with Hosack, previously to his entering the army. "faute de mieux," he prescribed for the men under his orders, and the writer of this article, in the familiarity of a messmate, used to say the G of his surname stood for "Gallen." When Mr. Gardner joined the mess, the "doctor" mentioned in the text was absent, nor did he return until the army officers had been some time at Oswego. The "doctor" and the "mess" were next door neighbors, the former living in a small building that joined the mess-house, cooking for himself, &c., &c. Many a time did the late Capt. Gamble and the writer risk breaking their necks, to crawl out on the doctor's wing and drop snow-balls and other "cooling ingredients," by means of the chimney, into the doctor's mess. The first evening of this personage's return to Oswego, he made his appearance in the mess, where he was cordially received, and formally introduced to the ensign by the writer.

"By the way, Galen, let me make you acquainted with our neighbor, Hippocrates, of whom you have heard us speak so often."

Woolsey, Gamble and Gardner smiled at the sally, but the smile was converted into a roar when the little doctor held out his hand to Gardner, and answered, with a simplicity that was of proof--

"Don't you mind what Cooper says, Mr. Galen; he is always at some foolery or other, and has nicknamed me Hippocrates; why I do not know, but my real name is ___."

Woolsey and his party hired a house and commenced housekeeping, their mess being soon increased by the arrival of a small detachment of the Old Sixth Infantry, under the orders of Lieut. Christie, subsequently the Colonel Christie who died in Canada, during the campaign of 1813. Ensign Gardner accompanied the party. This gentleman rose to the rank of Colonel also, acting as adjutant-general to the division of Gen. Brown in the celebrated campaign of '14, and has since been deputy postmaster-general, auditor of the Post-office Department, &c., &c.

This joint mess made a most merry winter of it. Woolsey was its head by bank, and he was its soul in spirits and resources. Balls, dinners, and suppers were given to the better portion of the inhabitants, and, from being regarded with distrust as likely to interfere with the free-trade principles that the embargo then rendered very decided on all the Canada frontier, Woolsey became highly popular and beloved. He had nothing to do, in fact, with the smugglers, his duty being strictly that of a man-of-war's man.

In the mean time, things did not drag on the point. Eckford was present, in person, and he went into the forest, marked his trees, had them cut, trimmed, and hauled, and in the frame of the Oneida in a very few days. The work advanced rapidly, and a small sloop of war, that was pierced for sixteen guns, soon rose on the stocks. Understanding that the floor-timbers of the salt-droggers never decayed, Woolsey had the frame of this brig filled in with salt, using the current coin of the place for that purpose. In that day, every thing was reduced to the standard value of salt, at Oswego. A barrel of salt on the wharf was counted at two dollars; and so many barrels of salt were paid for a cow, so many for a horse, and one barrel for a week's board of the better quality. The living was excellent, salmon, bass, venison in season, rabbits, squirrels, wild-geese, ducks, &c., abounding. The mess, however, pronounced cranberries the staple commodity of the region. They were uniformly served three times a day, and with venison, ducks, &c., made a most delicious accompaniment. Woolsey was a notable caterer, keeping his mess in abundance. The house had been a tavern, and the bar was now converted into a larder, the cold of that region serving to keep every thing sweet. It did the eye good to examine the collection that was made in this corner by Christmas! At the fireside, Woolsey was the life of the mess in conversation, anecdote, and amusement. He would have been a treasure on such an expedition as that of Parry's.

One day, an inhabitant of Oswego came running into the mess-house to say that a Lieut. R__, from Kingston, was then on board the brig, in disguise, examining her. The officers were at the table, and Woolsey cooly expressed his regrets that Mr. R. had not let him know of his visit, that he might have had the pleasure of his company at dinner. As the gentleman evidently wished to be incog., however, he could not think of disturbing him.


This visit was the precursor of the construction of a ship at Kingston, of a force to overcome the Oneida. The English vessel was called the Royal George, mounted twenty-four guns, and was much larger than the American brig. She subsequently figured in Sir James Yeo's squadron, under the name of the Montreal. A few months later, while the Royal George was still on the stocks, Woolsey had occasion to go to Kingston. He was invited by a friend in that place to pay a visit to the navy-yard, and putting on his uniform, he went. While on board the new ship, the very officer who had been at Oswego came up and remarked it was contrary to orders to allow foreign officers to examine the vessel. Woolsey apologized, said he was ignorant of the rule, and would retire.

"I have the honor of seeing Mr. R__, I believe," he added, as he was about to quit the ship.

The other admitted he was that person.

"I regret I did not know of the visit you did us the favor to make on board the Oneida, until it was too late to be of any service to you. The next time, I trust, you will apprize us of your intention, when I shall be extremely happy to let you see all we have that is worth the trouble of examining, and of showing you some of the hospitalities of the place."

It is scarcely necessary to say that the lieutenant looked very foolish, and Woolsey had his revenge. It is proper to add that this personage did not belong to the Royal, but to the Provincial Navy, and was a man of confessedly inferior manners and habits.

The Oneida was launched early in the spring, and was immediately equiped for the lake. Erskine's arrangement, as it was called, occurring soon after, however, she was not immediately used. Woolsey now determined to get a view of Niagara, as he did not know at what moment he might be ordered back to the seaboard. Manning and provisioning the brig's launch, therefore, he and Mr. Cooper sailed from Oswego, late in June, 1809. The commencement of this little voyage was favorable, and it was thought the boat would reach the river in the course of eight-and-forty hours; but the winds proved very variable, and came out fresh ahead. Instead of making the passage in the anticipated two days, the launch was a week out, encountering much bad weather. Relying on his sails, Woolsey had taken but four men, and this was not a force to do much with the oars, so that turning to windward was the business most of the time. Three times the boat beat up to a headland, called the Devil's Nose, and twice it was compelled, by the wind and sea, to bear up, before it could weather it. Four nights were passed in the boat, two on the beach, and one in a hut on the banks of the Genessee, a few miles below the falls, adn of course quite near the present site of Rochester.

All the south shore of Ontario, with here and there some immaterial exception, was then a wilderness! Four days out, the provisions failed, and there was actually a want of food. It was not easy to starve so near the forest, certainly, but the men had been improvident, and a fast of a few hours threw Woolsey on his resources. Even the last cracker was eaten, and fish could not be taken. One old seaman had passed forty years on the lake, and he knew the position of every dwelling that stood near its shore. There might then have been a dozen of these little clearings between the Oswego and the Niagara, and one that contained three or four log-houses was known to be some two or three leagues distant. There was no wind, and the launch was pulled up to a beach where it was easy to land, and at a point at no great distance from these houses. It was so late, however, that it was not thought expedient to search for the habitations that evening. The whole party was about to bivouac supperless, when Mr. Cooper accidentally came across a hedge-hog, which he killed with the sword of a cane. On this animal all hands supped, and very good eating it proved to be.

The next morning, the two gentlemen, accompanied by the old laker and another man, set out in quest of the log-huts, which stood a mile or two inland. One was found at the end of an hour, but no one was near it. It was inhabited, however, and in a pantry were found two loaves of bread, and a baking of dried whortleberry pies, as well as some milk. Necessity having no law, one loaf, two of the pies, and a gallon of milk were sequestered, two silver dollars being left in their places. After breakfasting, and sending the old man to the boat with some food, the two officers followed their pilot toward the other cabins. These were also found, and in them the mistress of the mansion already invaded. A full confession of what had been done followed, and a proposal was made to purchase the remainder of the pies. This alarmed the good woman, who returned with the party forthwith, but who tooks things more composedly when she got her hand on the silver. So difficult was it to obtain flour in those isolated clearings that she could not be tempted to sell any thing else, and the party returned to the boat, with about a fourth of a meal remaining in their posession. A breeze springing up, sail was made, and Woolsey proceded.

Hunger and head winds again brought the adventurers to a stand. A solitary dwelling was known to be at no great distance inland from the point where the boat now was, and again the party landed. The boat entered by a narrow inlet into a large bay, that was familiarly called Gerundegutt, (Irondoquoit,) and was hauled up for the night. The whole party bivouacked supperless.

In the morning, the two officers and three of the men went in quest of the house, which was found, a mile or two inland. The man who lived here was a cockney, who had left London some fifteen years before, and pitched his tent, as he said himself, twenty miles from his nearest neighbors. He went forty miles to mill, by his account, making most of the journey in a skiff. He had neither bread nor flour to spare, nor would money tempt him. ...

These things were related more to show the state of the Ontario frontier five-and-thirty years since, than for any great interest they possess of themselves. Provisions were almost of as much importance among the swellers of the forest, as with the mariner at sea; money itself, though of rare occurrence among them, becoming nearly valueless compared with flour, in particular. Even the Oswego currency, salt, did not abound among them, the difficulties of transportation rendering it of imporance to husband the smallest article of subsistence.

The launch went out, and began to turn to windward, in squally weather and against a foul wind. In crossing Genessee Bay it came near filling in a squall, and it was found necessary to bear up for the river. Here the party passed another night, in a solitary log cabin, at, or near the point where the steamers and other craft must now make their harbor. Next morning the launch went out, though the wind was still foul. Then came the tug at the Devil's Nose, which has been mentioned, and the running to leeward to lie to in smooth water. At length the wind came off the land, when the remainder of the distance was run without much difficulty.

It was just as the day broke, that the party in the launch made the mouth of the Niagara. The lantern was still burning in the light-house; the two forts, the town of Newark, and the appearance of cultivation on every side, had an effect like that of enchantment on those who had been coasting a wilderness for a week. Even Oswego, though an old station, had little the air of a peopled country, but the region along the banks of the Niagara had been settled as long as that on the banks of the Hudson, and the transition was like that of suddenly quitting the forest to be placed in the midst of the labors of man. It was the Fourth of July, and the launch entered the river with an American ensign set. It proceeded to Newark, where the two officers took up their quarters for a week. In an hour a deputation from Fort Niagara came across to inquire who had brought the American ensign, for the first time, in a man-of-war's boat, into that river. On being told, a formal invitation was given to join the officers on the other side in celebrating the day.

Woolsey and his party remained some time in and about the Niagara. He passed up on the upper lake, and paid a visit on board the Adams, a brig that belonged to the War Department, which was subsequently taken by the British, at Hull's surrender, named the Detroit, and cut out from under Fort Erie, by Elliott, in 1812. The return to Oswego was less difficult, and was accomplished in two days. These were the first movements by American man-of-war's men that ever occurred on the great lakes - waters that have since become famous by the deeds of M'Donough, Perry, and Chauncey.

Melancthon Taylor Woolsey
Background, Adams, Boston, Essex and Constitution,
Lakeboats, Niagara, Oneida, Sylph, Jones, After the War

Rev. Benjamin Woolsey

Maritime Research


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