Chapter 2: Creating the Town of Potsdam

Immediately after the Revolutionary War, Potsdam and nine other towns were carved out of the wilderness of Northern New York to protect against possible incursions from the British. The colonists who had remained loyal to Britain fled to the north shores of the St. Lawrence River. Cornwall was a popular destination, as was Prescott. The fort in Prescott, Fort Wellington, is visible from Ogdensburg. Britain maintained other forts inside American territory at Lake Champlain, Oswego and elsewhere. “There was a pressing need for a buffer zone to be established to protect the Mohawk Valley and the rest of the state from an invasion from the north” (Chapman, 3). The new American government wanted the buffer zone settled by loyal Americans.

The ownership of the land was not believed, by the Americans at least, to be in question. At Ogdensburg, there was a settlement of Native Americans of the Oswegatchie tribe (Hough, 108). The St. Regis Mohawks had a settlement at Fort Covington (110). But otherwise, Northern New York was a wilderness, serving only as a seasonal Native American hunting ground. The Mohawks called it Coughsaghrage, “the Beaverlands” (Leete, 2). Beaver pelts and other harvests were transported out of the wilderness on rivers like the St. Regis, the Racquette and the Oswegatchie. Those rivers ran into the St. Lawrence River, which was a major trade thoroughfare for the Mohawks and many other Native American and European groups.

Because the St. Lawrence was so important, the shores had a long history of shifting European claims. The Oswegatchies had fought with the French in the French and Indian War of the 1750s. When the war ended, the French had lost their Canadian colony to the British. The British government seized some lands and bought rights to other land from Native Americans, sometimes through transactions with individuals and sometimes with tribal authorities. The lands changed hands again when the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783 conveyed them to the Americans. The American government went ahead immediately with plans to get settlers into the wilderness, even though as late as1792, the St. Regis Mohawk diplomatic team believed they were still negotiating with the New York state government over land ownership (Hough, 129). In an interesting twist, the American government awarded land in Massena to Louis Cook of the St. Regis tribe for helping the Americans during the Revolutionary War (125).

To promote settlement by Americans, surveyors were sent to create townships along the St. Lawrence River in 1785. The townships were to be “64,000 acres as nearly square as possible … each … divided into mile square lots. In every township a lot was to be set aside to be known as the ‘Gospel and School Lot’ and another ‘for promoting literature’” (Chapman, 4). Five of the townships were on the river and five were inland. Because these towns were created out of the “wilderness,” land commissioners named them by decree: Potsdam, Canton, Madrid, Lisbon, Stockholm, Hague, Louisville, DeKalb and Oswegatchie (4).

Purchasing the Town: The Auction and the Syndicate

Once the lands were surveyed, purchasers and settlers needed to be found. In 1787, the government held an auction at a coffee house on the corner of Water and Wall streets in Manhattan. The bid for all 10 towns was won by Alexander Macomb; Macomb had made his money fur trading in Detroit and along the St. Lawrence River, so he knew the area. At a later auction, he bought all of the wild tracts of Northern New York, totaling 4 million acres, for 8 cents an acre (Ellis et al., 156).

By 1792, however, Macomb was bankrupt. He conveyed the 10 towns to William Edgar and William Constable, who in turn sold tracts to John Brown, David Parish, Samuel Ogden and Charles Le Roux. Constable paid 1500 pounds to buy Edgar out of the towns of Madrid, Potsdam, Louisville and the west half of Stockholm (Chapman, 4).

In 1802, Constable offered the Potsdam tract for $50,000 to Gerrit Van Horne, a merchant in Manhattan with whom Constable had been doing business. Not much was known about Potsdam to make it an attractive purchase, except that the waterfall on the Racquette River could be useful for manufacturing and that the regional sandstone might be of interest (Leete, 6).

Perhaps the merits of the Potsdam tract were of less concern than the growing interest in land speculation among wealthy Manhattanites (Ellis et al.,150). Gerrit Van Horne found at least seven others to share in the investment, establishing a syndicate. Van Horne was of the mercantile house Van Horne and Clarkson, so he invited his business partner David M. Clarkson. He also invited his wife’s brothers. Mrs. Gerrit Van Horne was Ann Margaret Clarkson, a cousin of David’s. Sources contradict each other on exactly who bought other shares in the Potsdam tract. Hough (244) claims that Ann Margaret’s brothers Gen. Matthew and Levinus Clarkson agreed to invest. Then Matthew invited his brothers-in-law, Hermon LeRoy and William Bayard, and his friend, Nicholas Fish. The final investor was James McEvers. Other sources name other proprietors. Parker (154) includes T. Streatfeild Clarkson and William Raymond. Annie Clarkson (2) includes John Clarkson and T. Streatfeild, but leaves out Matthew Clarkson, James McEvers and William Raymond. Leete (33) includes Thomas Ogden.

Although no original deed has yet been found, the mostly likely proprietors would include all three Clarkson brothers: Gen. Matthew, Levinus and T. Streatfeild, but would not include William Raymond, John Clarkson or Thomas Ogden, as there is likely to have been some confusion with names and roles.

Planning the Town: Benjamin Raymond

Van Horne secured Benjamin Raymond as land agent, both because Raymond had already surveyed the area for William Constable in 1799, and because Raymond was a man of “fine ability … and a natural leader.” He was well-educated, studious and religious. The proprietors were able to trust him absolutely (Parker, 154). His job as land agent was essentially that of a developer: to develop infrastructure and sell land to settlers. However, land sales went quite slowly (Leete, 29).

Potsdam was accessible by three routes. Most of the new settlers were coming from Vermont, so they crossed Lake Champlain then traveled through the “Fifty Mile Woods.” Another route was from the St. Lawrence River [to Massena], down the St. Regis River to what is now Raymondville, then overland. The third was the route Raymond used in 1803. Starting in Rome, Raymond accessed the Oswego River to Lake Ontario and then paddled down the St. Lawrence. This was a well-known Native American route. Coming ashore near what is now Waddington, he blazed a trail through Hamilton (Madrid village) (Parker, 152) to the Racquette River and then built rafts to pole upstream to the falls (Chapman, 5).

That first year, Raymond built a hut and sawmill at the Racquette River falls. This location near and on Fall Island became the industrial heart of Potsdam. Raymond then cleared roads to Stockholm and Canton. The second year, he built a two-story grist mill and a house on the west side of the river to serve “as land office, home, hotel, church and general headquarters” (Chapman, 5). During this time, he also surveyed and mapped plots of land for sale. The majority of lots, each a mile square, were for farming. Village lots were divided into two types: pasture lots — long lots with access to the river so that the home owners could also stable livestock or a team of horses — and village lots — smaller lots for houses and shops.

Raymond had the vision and the financial backing of the proprietors to build a school. He had been competing against Canton for Potsdam to become the county seat, but lost that battle. In 1807, he wrote to Van Horne and David Clarkson: 

Among the diverse objects that present themselves I know of none that will have a better effect than expending something handsome for the erection of a school house, calculated at the same time for other purposes. I would propose to build it on one of the village lots, near the center of them, and retain the property in your own hands until it shall appear that a proper use would be made of it if granted to the public. I would suggest this the rather, as we are not so situated as to have any chance for the county buildings and would therefore wish to take the lead in establishing a seminary of education: as this county is so detached from the rest of the State, something of this kind will undoubtedly be necessary in this quarter, and would receive some attendance from Canada, where nothing of the kind receives government patronage. (Parker, 155-6)

Map of the Mill Estates and Village

In 1810, Raymond built The Academy, where Old Snell is now in downtown Potsdam, to serve as both church and school and, the next year, hired a Harvard graduate, James Johnson, to teach and be minister on Sundays (Chapman, 6). By 1816, in a village of 200 people, there were 42 students (Leete, 22). Education was clearly valued in this wilderness town. However, notes in the sources indicate another sourer flavor of life in the growing settlement. The teacher was dismissed in 1817, “perhaps because of his plainness of speech that at times was somewhat severe” (Chapman, 6). This note on Johnson’s style parallels a note on Raymond’s. Apparently, Raymond was memorable for being able to “condense into a phrase or a word, a criticism that would not be forgotten” (Parker, 154).

Raymond was not only a land agent but also a prime land owner. He bought the land for a 508-acre farm at the edge of the village extending from Stockholm Road (now Lawrence Avenue) to Union Road (now Market Street). In 1810, he built a grand new wooden house on the hill at what is now 30 Leroy Street. The house also served as Raymond’s headquarters. He sold this property back to the proprietors for $11,599.22 when he left. Raymond left in 1818 for a more lucrative position as land agent for John McVickar, who was setting up an industrial and shipping hub at Racketon (later Raymondville) on the Racquette River (Chapman, 6).

By the end of Raymond’s management in Potsdam, there were about 300 settlers (a majority from Vermont) who were on the route of a regular stagecoach between Plattsburgh and Ogdensburg and were served by a newspaper and six stores (Leete).

Peopling the Town: John Charlton Clarkson

When Raymond left, Van Horne asked his partner’s son, John Charlton Clarkson, to take on the position (David Clarkson had died in 1815). While John had seen success as a merchant in Manhattan, he was also considered “young and frolicsome” and too soft on those who owed him debts (Matson, 160). Potsdam would be a proving ground for him.

In Potsdam, John rented the Raymond house on Leroy Street and continued to “retain Raymond’s assistance” (Parker, 155). Like Raymond, he found attracting settlers difficult (A. Clarkson, 11-12), so in 1820, he wrote to Van Horne for money to build a church, noting “that having a church here will very much promote the settlement of the town, for I have often observed that valuable settlers always inquire about the state of society, whether there is a settled minister, a church, etc.” (Parker, 157).

Academy and Presbyterian Church

John also felt it would streamline property sales if he could consolidate the eight separate deeds of the original owners. In 1821, Gen. Matthew Clarkson established a trust for the other proprietors that effectively gave power over the property to just three: Gerrit Van Horne, Thomas Streatfeild Clarkson and Levinus Clarkson (Parker, 154). The proprietors’ property was called the Mill Estates.

As part of the consolidation, a LeRoy took over the Raymond farm and came to live in Potsdam around 1821. Annie Clarkson claims it was William LeRoy (13), while Leete and Chapman claim it was Hermon LeRoy. It was perhaps at this time that the street took its current name, Leroy Street (Chapman, 15). John had moved from the Raymond house to 44 Elm Street. In 1822, John’s family moved again, this time to The Mansion, later known as Holcroft House on the Clarkson hill estate (Chapman, 6).

During the 15 years John lived and worked in Potsdam, the population of the village increased to 3,810 — the most populous in St. Lawrence County except for Madrid and Oswegatchie (Hough, 571). According to Parker, John had “promoted the prosperity of the settlement, managing its affairs with great ability” (156).

The Mansion