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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Bonapartes in America

Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance

published by
Dorrance and Company,
Philadelphia, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 6

 p111  V
Joseph and Lake Bonaparte

"Well I remember you spoke to me formerly of your great possessions in the United States. If you have them still, I should like very much to have some in exchange for a part of that silver I have there in those wagons, and which may be pillaged at any moment. Take four or five hundred thousand francs and give me the equivalent in land."

"I cannot do so. It is impossible to make a bargain when only one party knows what he is about."

"Oh, I know you well, and I rely more on your word than my own judgment."1

The first speaker was Joseph Bonaparte — Joseph of Naples and Spain. The second was Count James Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont; and the "great possessions in the United States" consisted of huge holdings of wild, undeveloped and mostly forest land in Northern New York State, where Count de Chaumont had owned approximately 350,000 acres in Franklin, St. Lawrence, Jefferson, and Lewis Counties. How he came to own this land goes back to "Castorland," a land development of noble and clerical exiles which was an attempt of certain ones in troubled France to create a retreat in the New World, to which they hoped to escape. They formed "La Compagnie de New  p112 York" in August, 1792, and the same month purchased from William Constable an immense tract in the Black River Valley of Northern New York. Their maximum holdings were 630,000 acres, and subsequently stock certificates and lots were sold, each share of fifty acres selling for about one hundred and fifty dollars.

The first exiles sailed from Havre July 4, 1793, reaching New York September 7, 1793. On their way up‑country they were greeted warmly by Baron von Steuben, who in his log home, some fifteen miles north of Utica, was hard at work endeavoring to clear and cultivate part of the 16,000 acres received from the State. Castorland, unfortunately, was a complete, prompt failure, financially and otherwise, and in 1800 Gouverneur Morris of New York took it over as agent. He interested de Chaumont, and much of this property finally became his. Count Le Ray de Chaumont, an old friend of Joseph Bonaparte, had many connections with the American Colonies which became the United States. Count de Chaumont, of an old and noble family, was the son of the man who gave Benjamin Franklin a home at Passy when Franklin was American Commissioner to the French Court. The younger de Chaumont's father had helped the Colonies in other ways, and indeed it is said that he expended a large portion of a considerable fortune in their behalf. The name "Chaumont" is familiar to millions of living Americans, since that was the site of the American "G. H. Q." in the World War.​a

The young Count de Chaumont, not long after the end of the American Revolution, came to America to  p113 see things for himself and in due course he became one of the greatest land-holders in the new country. With an associate he also purchased a smaller tract in Otsego County, and there they installed a Judge Cooper as their agent. Judge Cooper was the father of James Fenimore Cooper, future American novelist.

All the Bonapartes had large resources — and their wives, their cousins, and their aunts — to set themselves up anew in a new world. Then as now it seemed a custom of ex‑kings, whether a Bonaparte, a Selassie, a Wilhelm, an Alphonso, or a Duke of Windsor. Only Napoleon himself lost all, but he gave to his family the resources they required to cushion the shock of their involuntary exile, even unto the third and fourth generation, for it takes money to keep money, even to marry money, and the Bonapartes always have been wealthy.

At the time of which we write, 1815, Joseph Bonaparte was still in France. Count de Chaumont heard that he was in Blois and hastened thence. It was at dinner there that occurred the conversation which was to make Joseph an up‑State New Yorker. Whether or not he gave de Chaumont a wagon-load of silver, or as other authorities say, about one hundred thousand dollars, is not known, but it is known that Joseph did purchase from de Chaumont approximately 150,000 acres, and the center of his purchase was the body of water which was to become Lake Bonaparte. Joseph is supposed to have made the purchase that same year, 1815, using his American name of Count de Survilliers, although other authorities claim that it was not until December 1818 that Joseph's land was purchased for  p114 him by Pierre S. Duponceau, his agent. Actually, Joseph was not authorized by the State of New York to own land in his own name until 1825, although the State of New Jersey conferred on him this right, which was his without the necessity of becoming an American citizen, in 1817. Joseph of course had reasons for retaining his French nationality and citizen­ship. The New York Legislature had bestowed on Joseph his land-holding right by a special Act following a petition to them which had read: "Not being of the number of those who would wish to abandon this land of hospitality, where the best rights of man do prevail, I am nevertheless bound to my own country by ties which misfortunes render sacred."2

A certain amount of weight is lent the 1818 purchase date, or at least the date when Joseph actually put cash "on the line," by the fact that his resources when fleeing France were said to be far from as great as reported. His contribution to the Hundred Days, so it was related, had reduced his readily available possessions to only "a little land, a collection of objets d'art, and precious stones, by the sale of which he purchased his property in the United States."​3 Probably this refers to his New Jersey holdings. When, in 1818, Mailliard returned from his excavating at Prangins Castle with five millions in diamonds, Joseph really was in funds, if indeed he had not been before. Kingly "poverty" is only relative.

 p115  Even Joseph, however, was not immune to the laws of supply and demand, inflation and deflation, whatever called then. Joseph's silver, with which may well have been mixed some diamonds, had bought him 150,000 Northern acres. "Later, in 1820, when the silver and diamonds took one of their peculiar and unaccountable falls in value, for the silver problem was not unknown even in those days, the number of acres which Joseph owned was reduced to 26,840."​4 From beginning to end, Bonaparte and de Chaumont dealt fairly and squarely, as well as according to the land and money markets.

When Joseph bought his inland empire, Napoleon hoped to accompany him, and it is said that their scheme was to create a great manufacturing establishment along the Black River Valley. It seems ridiculous enough now and in a way not a little pathetic to reflect that it was their hope thus to become a manufacturing rival of England. Yet it was not forgotten and was more than once discussed at dinners given there by Joseph and also by Count de Chaumont, who himself had a chateau near the Black River and who entertained there a son of Marshal Murat, de Chaumont's guest and another Adirondack dreamer.

Chaumont's chateau was located at Le Rayville, about ten miles east of Watertown, and the Count and his family had been permanent residents of the United States  p116 from about 1808. To his home came courtiers, clergy, princes and even kings, before most of whose names "ex" belonged. Yet his home was hospitable and he, like his father, a true friend of the new nation. Democratically, he was known usually as simply Le Ray or Chaumont instead of M. le Comte.

While a true friend of the Colonies, it is said nevertheless that the real reason for his first visit to our shores was his father's natural desire to collect certain "war debts" from the new Government of the United States. Young Chaumont, born at the Chateau de Chaumont November 13, 1760, came over several times. He had wed Miss Grace Coxe, a New Jersey girl, February 21, 1790. A son and daughter were born to them, the son Vincent assisting his father in his American affairs. It was not until 1810 that he went home to France, there to stay, his son Vincent remaining in America as his representative. Vincent is said to have been thoroughly successful in this, and from now on in American annals is found the name of Vincent Le Ray rather than James D. Le Ray, Comte de Chaumont.

Although Joseph had been in America since 1815, it was not until about 1828 that he first visited his new country home. A trip then was not so simple as today, when to go from Bordentown to Lake Bonaparte by fast train or automobile is but a short and pleasant journey, by airplane a matter of two or three hours. From Bordentown, then, in 1828 and later, he pursued his way to New York City, up the Hudson River by boat to Albany, drove through the Mohawk Valley to Utica (with an occasional Saratoga Springs stop-over), north to  p117 Carthage, and thence to his own domain. Here it was necessary, writers of the time remind us, to cut his own way through the woodland. His great traveling coach is said to have been drawn by six horses. He was accompanied by courtiers and friends of better days, and "dressed in his elegant green hunting suit, with gilded trappings to match, he seemed indeed a prince among the hunters." So elaborate was his turn‑out and spectacular his progress, that contemporary writers compared his summer exodus to the journeyings of the old French kings from Fontainebleau to Blois in the preceding century. He dined on the way, wherever he happened to be, perhaps in the woods from golden dishes, which accompanied him and regarding which, under the stands of virgin pine and hardwood, he could reflect on all he had lost, and his hopes for recovery. During the four or five summers when he went north, he visited more than once at the home of an ancestor of one of the authors of this book, and it seems he was partial to the American cheese and other dairy products which they gave him. He got no golden dishes there. They were Quaker folk from Philadelphia. Joseph always had a jolly company with him. Once after a stop at a hostelry in the Mohawk Valley, the innkeeper presented Joseph with his bill — "To making in mine house one big fuss — $200."

When Joseph reached Carthage, he was able to leave his coach and six for a gondola and six. From Carthage in those days the Black River was navigable upstream for thirty to forty miles, and indeed small steamboats were able to go up it, so that it was no trick to carry  p118 Joseph smoothly and swiftly in his six‑oared gondola to his lake, the boat being portaged from the river.

On one occasion Joseph and party halted at Pine Plains, now the site of a great Army camp and training area.​b Then there was nothing but mountain, plain, forest and stream in the North of New York. Joseph's Lake, which promptly was named Bonaparte, by or for him, covers about twelve hundred acres. Now, as then, the shore line is wild and rugged. There are rocky islets and the waters of the lake have been compared to those in the Highlands of Scotland. The lake itself is in the township of Diana, Lewis County, and the name of the goddess of huntsmen was given the town at the request of Joseph, whose favorite sport was Diana's.

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Lake Bonaparte, New York
Still Wild and Rugged

When Joseph's "liveried gondoliers and gay trappings" had got him to his own waterway, he was under the necessity of building himself a hunting lodge. This he did in the same year of 1828, erecting also a summer house at the lake's outlet. The village of Alpine later marked this site. Finally he built a second summer house on Indian River at Natural Bridge. This is some seven miles to the south of the Lake, and his Natural Bridge home is said to have contained "bullet-proof sleeping rooms." If so, this is another American "first" in a land which has tried to accustom itself to bullet-proof motor cars, windshields, and vests. Although there were no racketeers as we know them in those days — called "good old days" — Joseph may have had his enemies. Yet he never was harmed in a country  p119 which welcomed him and which in his own time he left voluntarily.

To this wilderness Sans Souci, Joseph took his beautiful Quaker girl, Annette Savage, destined to be the mother of the first more-or‑less kingly scion to be born in these United States. Local tradition mentions their daughter,​5 and you hear that she was born to them at Natural Bridge, that she grew up, married well, and had a son, Joseph's American grandson. They said there of Annette that "she was always known as his wife while at Lake Bonaparte."

Among those who gathered at Joseph's New York retreat were Marshal Grouchy, Count Real, Napoleon's Prefect of Police — Duc de Vincennes — and the astronomer, M. Pigeon, who had vowed when leaving France that he would never wear a covering on his head until the Emperor Napoleon should come into his own again.

For his principal Lake home, Joseph chose a rocky height near the head of the Lake. The building was long and well-furnished. What is left of this log lodge, which was burned, still may be seen — a forlorn little pile of foundation stones. Only the view remains. The view will always be there, let us hope, and there are also summer visitors whose hundred cottages now dot the Lake. Joseph's place at the outlet of the Lake was a frame structure in a clearing of some thirty acres. It had a cellar, an icehouse, the usual out‑buildings — all rotted down.

In those days he could enjoy without difficulty the  p120 hunting of deer, partridge and duck, and in the lake or nearby streams excellent fishing for pike, bass, salmon and speckled trout. The Lake has a coast line of about twenty-five miles, is four miles long, and reaches an extreme depth of five hundred feet. It is some eighteen hundred feet above sea level; the shores of it from one hundred to two and even three hundred feet in height. From the Lake can be seen the famous Adirondack skyline all about.

Nearby is a cave, located on Green Pond about half a mile from the Lake. At the time of one of Joseph's visits, about 1830, natives say, a friend and companion of Bonaparte fell in love with a girl, likewise French. We do not know their names now, only the fate that befell them. The local legend has it that they never returned from a boat ride which they took one day, and their friends supposed that they drowned. A score of years later, however, hunters found two skeletons in the Green Pond cave, together with a goldpiece of Napoleon and sufficient evidence in addition to identify the dead lovers. It never was known whether they were the victims of wild animals which had dragged them to the cave, or of a suicide pact. Since suicide is deemed romantic, that is the more popular local theory, though the cave is said to be the old‑time haunt of Adirondack panther and bear.

Should you go to Lake Bonaparte today you will find there a hotel which can accommodate a large number of guests. You will not need to go like Joseph, in a coach and six, for you can travel swiftly and smoothly in your motor car over Route 3 from Carthage northeast  p121 to Natural Bridge and on to Lake Bonaparte. The nearest good-sized city is Watertown, near Ogdensburg and the St. Lawrence, due north. Some of the most famous peaks and resorts of the Adirondacks are to the east, at Tupper Lake, Cranberry, Saranac, and Placid. Canada is not far to the north, just across the St. Lawrence River, and Bonaparte is one of a cluster of three little lakes, Bonaparte, Indian and Sylvia.

Not only had Napoleon, Joseph and Chaumont been interested in the North, but it is said that Prince Murat, who lived near Joseph at Bordentown, had visions of a great project near the Black River. Here he hoped to see a city — "Joachim" — a city of the grand and wealthy. The natural advantages were there and nothing was lacking, except unfortunately everyone else. No one would invest. He himself had a little cash, though on his Northern project he also expended some forty thousand dollars secured from an American sister of Madame Murat. This grandiose colonizing scheme based largely on "other people's money" was by no means the first to be tried and to fail. But it seems that land plans involving aristocrats only are doomed. Poor men's projects have failed too, but more often have succeeded, while the rich man's "exclusive" colony on the other hand practically always has failed here, and doubtless always will.

Joseph enjoyed four or five summer visits to his Northern home, and then in 1835 he disposed of everything to John La Farge, wealthy merchant of New York City, through his agent, Judge Joseph Boyer. Prior to this Joseph had sold and given away many acres, however,  p122 including the land for "Joachim." Napoleon's favorite brother, who was said to resemble him more than any of the others, commanded the respect, indeed the liking, of his neighbor settlers and the stray hunters. He was well liked by all; nevertheless it was a neighbor who sued him in Jefferson County Court for clearing a piece of land. Joseph paid the bill without going to law. This displeased him greatly, although we cannot believe that this alone could have caused him to abandon life in the wilds. In the beginning Joseph had planned and started to build for wintering as well as in summering in his bucolic retreat, but the deep snows and robust winters of up‑State New York soon proved, early in the first Fall, too much for Joseph's Latin blood.

Today the French "northlanders" all are gone: Joseph, Chaumont, Murat, others. Only their names remain. Yet it is scarcely more than a hundred years since these representatives of European royalty sighted a gun and tested a rod in the democratic fastnesses of the Adirondack foothills.

A house which its builder hoped would be honored by the presence of the Emperor was built on the border of Northern New York. Where Lake Ontario empties into the St. Lawrence River, at the beginning of the Thousand Islands, is the village of Cape Vincent. It is located opposite Wolf Island, on the others of which is Kingston, Ontario, Canada. To the south are Chaumont Bay and the town of Chaumont, wherein again we meet our friend and Bonaparte benefactor, de Chaumont. Not only did Chaumont and his  p123 friends visit these parts and inhabit many of these places, but later immigrants from France came over in considerable numbers from about the year 1830. Joseph Bonaparte, not to mention these many French friends and emigres, indeed had been called "perhaps the first of the summer sojourners in the region of the St. Lawrence River and the Thousand Islands."6

In Cape Vincent itself were two famous homes: first, the "Cup and Saucer House" which stood on the bank of the St. Lawrence at the foot of Kanady Street; and the other, the "Stone House," which remains. The Cup and Saucer House was called such because of the fact that it resembled a saucer bearing an inverted cup. It was built before 1818 by Count Pierre Francois Real, who lived in it and who intended that Napoleon should live in it with him. Count Real, with several friends, reached America in 1817. He had been an important man in France, a member of the Council of State, Minister, and during the Hundred days, the Prefect of Police. He was much attached to Napoleon, as Napoleon to him. It was Real supposedly who thwarted Georges Cadoudal's gunpowder plot against First Consul Bonaparte's life in 1800. At one time Count Real received from the Emperor a half-million francs to buy himself a house, a house which is now said to be the residence of a Baron Rothschild. It is related that Count Real and friends, following their successful transfer to America, here planned to welcome Napoleon from his rocky prison. The Count  p124 alone was destined to inhabit the Cup and Saucer House which, catching fire in 1867 from a parlor fireplace, is now no more.

Count Real seems to have been a talented Frenchman as well as a devoted one, and is said to have furnished the house as well as he was able, financially and architecturally, that it might be worthy of his Emperor. Napoleon's room had been made and reserved especially for him, but he was not to occupy it. Joseph Bonaparte and Count Real, however, met several times, and the Count, finally returning to France, died in 1831 in Paris.

The Stone House, standing today and owned by a New Yorker, has French, though not Bonaparte, associations, and was built in 1815 by de Chaumont himself, by whom it was sold to three former officers of Napoleon, the brothers Peugnet. Descendants of the Peugnets may still be found in America, and one of them has the Legion of Honor decoration awarded a Peugnet by Napoleon; another, a similar decoration presented by Marshal Murat. Two of the brothers founded in New York a school for boys, where the future Confederate General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Beauregard first studied Army regulations.7

The Authors' Notes:

1 Sylvester, Historical Sketches of No. N. Y. W. H. Young, Troy. 1877.

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2 E. T. Tomlinson, The Independent. N. Y. 1902.

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3 F. Marion Crawford, Joseph Bonaparte in Bordentown. Century Magazine, N. Y. 1893.

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4 Tomlinson, The Independent.

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5 Supposed to have been pensioned by Napoleon III.

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6 Tomlinson, The Independent.

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7 Casler, Cape Vincent and Its history. 1906.

Thayer's Notes:

a The author's quick writing (and maybe equally quick research) may inadvertently lead the unwary reader to identify the house at Passy with the place that was home to the American Expeditionary Force in 1918. The places are 225 kilometers apart: furthermore, there is no connection whatever.

Businessman Jacques Le Ray, having made his fortune early, bought the magnificent château of Chaumont-sur‑Loire from which he took his name for half his life. The town of Chaumont made famous in World War I, on the other hand, is a large town in Champagne, the two places merely sharing the name — along with at least two dozen other places in France: the word means "Bald Mountain".

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b Fort Drum, NY.

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18