The Battle of Ogdensburg

Ed LaVarnway, Executive Director, Frederic Remington Art Museum

David Parish (1778 -1826) was a wealthy European entrepreneur of English ancestry who bought over 200,000 acres of undeveloped land in Northern New York’s St Lawrence and Jefferson Counties in 1808.  He paid a little over $1.80 per acre, which he planned to retail to settlers at $5.00 and $6.00 per acre. To make settling there more attractive he installed roads and bridges, gristmills and taverns.  He built boat works on the St. Lawrence and ironworks nearby.  Skilled workmen and mechanics were recruited from Montreal, 120 miles away.

The economic center of his planned development was to be Ogdensburg.  In 1809 Parish began construction of a large stone store on the river and a palatial “dwelling house” nearby.  That house, known as The Rose Villa, was the wonder of the region. It featured woodwork imported from France, marble fountains, stables for Parish’s pure bred horses, an aviary, a fine wine cellar and a bowling alley among other wonders.  It was surrounded by eight foot stone walls and occupied much of today’s downtown Ogdensburg. This mansion would have continued importance to Ogdensburg and the world over a century later.

There were about 1,200 people living in the little village and the local economy thrived on illicit trade with the British across the river at Prescott, Upper Canada.

Meat, agricultural produce, lumber and potash went to Canada in exchange for finished goods from Montreal.  It was a profitable arrangement enjoyed by both sides.  Agents of David Parish and Judge Nathan Ford were among the leaders in this very profitable smuggling.

It should be remembered that Northern New Yorkers had little hunger or interest for independence from Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution and felt little hostility toward the British in Canada, at least in Ogdensburg when war was declared.  War was definitely bad for business.  Even after war was declared in June 1812, British officers frequently crossed to Ogdensburg to buy goods in Parish’s store and enjoy fine meals at his mansion.  The local attitude was well summed up by a sign erected on the British side of the river depicting an American eagle and a British lion with the caption, “If you don’t scratch, I won’t bite.”

Both British and American high commands saw important strategic value in the river at Ogdensburg.  A properly conducted campaign there with gunboats attacking British supply lines could isolate the great lakes and set the stage for an American invasion, or at least a foothold on the Canadian side.

The local militia was simply not interested in pursuing these tactics; and as the commanding general in Sackets Harbor came to understand this, he sent in a firebrand from North Carolina named Captain Benjamin Forsyth.  Forsyth commanded the 1st US rifle Regiment and they proceeded to harass the Canadian side aggressively.

He succeeded in annoying the British who on February 22nd, 1813 attacked Ogdensburg with overwhelming force.  Forsyth’s Rifles were routed, the village occupied and many, if not all, buildings were pillaged and burned.  All but three, and they were Parish’s villa and store, and Judge Ford’s mansion, structures critical to the illegal cross-boarder commerce.

In mid-1813 Parish and other financiers collaborated to float a $16,000,000 war loan to the United States government to help pay for the war effort. Parish made a considerable sum by reselling the bonds for which he himself never paid. At the same time he increased his already considerable influence with the Madison administration and congress in Washington.

Judge Ford remarked that he felt much safer with the American rifle regiment gone than when they were present “protecting” Ogdensburg.  Parish agreed, and may have used his considerable influence in Washington to have the St. Lawrence valley around Ogdensburg declared a neutral zone.  Whether that’s true or not, after Forsyth’s Rifles left the region, no regular army returned before the war’s end.

And back to Parish’s Mansion:  the last Parish family member here sold it in 1879 and it was in private hands until 1923 when its doors opened to the public as the Remington Art Memorial, home to the world’s largest collection of the art and archival materials of Frederic Remington, America’s great artist of the Old West.  Visitors are welcome!