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Why George Washington sent a spy mission to Fort Oswegatchie

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If you have ever wondered what’s the fastest and easiest way to get to the Mohawk Valley from Ogdensburg, you are not alone.

In April of 1779, General George Washington asked the same question.

As the commander in chief of the American forces fighting for liberty from Great Britain, Washington was convinced that the best way to invade Canada was to send an invasion force from the Mohawk Valley down the Oswegatchie River to the St. Lawrence River.

On April 27, 1779, Washington wrote to General Philip Schuyler, asking him to send troops on a secret mission to Fort Oswegatchie.

After the British conquered the French in 1760, they rebuilt Fort La Presentation and renamed it Fort Oswegatchie.

British troops used it throughout the Revolution to launch raids against the Americans in the Mohawk Valley.

Washington had read some of the British accounts of their war against the French and discovered Col. John Bradstreet believed the Oswegatchie Indians had a route that allowed them to travel from the St. Lawrence River to Oneida Lake, a distance of 100 miles, in just three days.

The following is Washington’s letter to Schuyler:

“It is by the rout of this Creek the Indians from Oswegatchie come to Oneida & from thence make incursions & commit ravages on the Inhabitants of the Mohawks Country; according to the best information I could obtain, their journey to the Mouth of this Creek is usually performed in three days, and its distance from Oswegatchie about 100 Miles. It may yet be of importance to investigate this matter thoroughly for if the distance is no greater than is mentioned above & a way can be had fit for the transportation of Artillery & stores it presents itself to me as the most certain plan for reducing the upper Posts of the Enemy, & their force on the lake as their communication with Canada may be cut—In this point of light it becomes an object of much consideration, & I shall esteem it as a particular favor to have this Country & rout well explored.

“Lieutt McClelan’s acct of his Scout from Fort Schuyler to Oswegatchie 1. is plain distinct, & pointed, so far as he undertakes to relate; but I can find no such water on the Maps as he denominates the River Scull; nor can I reconcile its course, as described by him, to my ideas of any River in that Country.2. It appears by his journal that after travelling 46 Miles from Fort Schuyler & crossing the Mohawk River twice, he came to the River Scull (where it was 40 yards wide). That he passed down this River 70 Miles when it became near half a mile wide. that from hence he steered a No. Et course, and at the distance of 18 Miles came to the head of the River Oswegatchie, down which he proceeded 70 Miles more & then passed through a level Country to the Fort of that name distant 12 Miles.

“This River (Scull) must certainly empty, either into the St Lawrence or Ontario above, but I cannot reconcile with it, the idea of Oswegatchie’s heading within 18 Miles of so broad a part of it as is described—according to my usual custom therefore I am induced my dear Sir to request the favor of you, through the means of Colo. Vansaick, to obtain as particular answer’s to the following questions as you can.

“First—What course did he steer from Fort Schuyler to the River Scull? how does the Oneida lake bear from it—Whether is the way interrupted by waters, or Swamps, difficult to pass? & whether in a word a good road can be easily made over the Hills he speaks of fit for the transportation of Waggons &ca.

“Second—What kind of Navigation does the River Scull afford between the Carrying places is the water rapid or still—shallow or deep? what sized vessels will it admit? Is the Course of the River much interrupted by fallen Trees? are the carrying places very bad, or can the passage of them by land be made easy with a little labour? What appearance has the genl face of the Country from the place he first embarked on the River, till he debarked? Is it hilly, Mountainous & inhospitable? or has it the appearance of fertility? In a word, will it admit of a road for Horses, & feed for Cattle, in case an expedition should go that way?

“Third—what kind of a Road can be had from the River Scull to the head of Oswegatchie, over the Pine ridge he speaks of? and what kind of a Country is it in Genel?

“Fourth—The same questions in all respects relative to the Navigation of the River Oswegatchie—the carrying places—kind of Country &ca—as in the secd question, respecting the River Scull?

“Fifth—The appearance of the Country about Oswegatchie Fort—The width of the River St Lawrence at that place &ca.

I am most sincerely & Affectly Yrs

George Washington

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.

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