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Island Military in the Gilded Age

We don’t often think of the Thousand Islands as a militarized area, yet in the past, the Islands have been the scene of several military actions most notably during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the War of Grindstone Island and in 1838 - the Patriots’ War. Yes, these, being before the US Civil War,  were well known skirmishes.  However, did you know that after the Civil War, the Islands were used for militia training and recreation? Yes, particularly Little Round Island and Grindstone Island.

The Utica Morning Herald of August 5th 1878, described Camp Belden, on Little Round Island; the 51st Regiment of the Syracuse National Guard, under the command of Col. John W. Yale, were training there. A total of 410 officers and men participated in the encampment.

Under the Military Code, a parade of the Command was to take place on August 5th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 19th. “Parade “Members will provide themselves with one ration, two pairs of white gloves, change of under clothing, towels, soap, blacking and brushes.”[1]

Colonel Yale issued General Order No. 4, including order # VIII “Inspector of rifle practice, Brevet Colonel D. H. Bruce, will make the proper requisition for ammunition, indicators and score cards, and cause to be erected on Little Round Island, suitable butts and targets for rifle practice.” The camp on Little Round appears not to be totally recreational.

Almost Real War

The next evidence appears in 1893, in an article in the Gazette and Farmers Journal of August 24, 1893; headlined “Almost Real War”, this time it involved the 41st company of the New York State National Guard from Syracuse. The company was being brought to Little Round Island by the steamer “J. F. Maynard”, but the ship was unable to discharge the company because it could not get close enough to the island. The steamer was sent to Thousand Islands Park, to secure a scow, to use as a temporary dock. Upon arrival George C. Sawyer, a trustee of the Park would not allow the steamer to land, as it wasSunday and no steamers were allowed to land at TI Park on Sunday. Lieut. Harry C. Baum inquired “will you resist the authority of the United States? If you do, this I will bring a whole detachment, with rifles and cartridges, and they won’t be blanks either, and we will see who has the better say in this matter.” Needless to say Trustee Sawyer bowed to the superior force.

The camp was to last for 10 days.

Watertown Daily Times carried an article on 9 August 1893 about a rumor then circulating in Syracuse, that “it wasn’t all patriotism for which the boys joined the 41st. There was the promise of a week’s camp at the government’s expense on Little Round Island, opposite the Frontenac [Hotel], in the Thousand Islands. These same persons have said that the possibility of displaying their masculine charms in all the glory of brass buttons and white stripes at the Frontenac Balls was too much to be resisted. All this is undoubtedly without foundation in fact, and should not be believed by anyone who has the good of the National Guard at heart.”

The first indication of potential military activity on Grindstone came in 1898; shortly after the State purchased Canoe and Picnic Points for parks. The suggestion was made that the State Military Camp at Peekskill be closed and in its place the National Guard would move to Grindstone Island. Additional land would be purchased adjacent to the State Parks.[2] The additional lands were never purchased; and the Auburn National Guard didn’t come to Canoe Point State Park until 1907.

The first record of a camp on Grindstone was in August 1907; it was named “Camp General William H. Seward.”[3] Seward was a Brigadier General in the Union Army, in the Civil War. He was the youngest son of Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward; the man whose folly was the purchase of Alaska. William H. Seward Jr. was born in Auburn, New York in 1839 and died there in 1920.4

Life did not appear to be as rugged on Grindstone as Little Round. Whereas the troops on Little Round paraded and had rifle training; on Grindstone it was more of an outing.

Monday was washday and the men washed their clothes on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. On Tuesday, several men “were off on trips to various resorts among the islands.”3 “Wednesday morning several went into Clayton and boarded one of the big boats for a day trip to Kingston, while another large bunch enjoyed the ride to the Canadian Village of Gananoque”3

In 1910, the camp was known as Camp Sadler. There was reminiscing about the 1907 camp: “Camp Sadler looked fine to the men that were here for a week, three years ago. The Company M memorial is still standing and there will be a chance for the recruits to get in a little extra labor in making the monument of larger size.6”

Activities included fishing, boating, and sightseeing. The steamer Niagara was chartered for the entire week, to provide transportation to and from Clayton. Some members engaged row boats for the week for fishing; while others joined in playing baseball with various teams including the Thousand Island Park team.

The next visit by the boys from Auburn was summer 1912; a camp was planned for the summer of 1915. There appears to be no mention of the intervening years in the Auburn paper. Plans for the visit in 1915 included: “During their stay at camp, ball games will be played between teams near the camp and the company nine. Victrolas and other musical instruments will be brought along and it is expected that this year’s trip will be one of the most enjoyable yet taken.7”


Were there other encampments?  Readers are encouraged to comment on any other islands where military events occurred during the Gilded Age. Was the Canadian Military training or camping on any of their islands?  There is always fascinating history to be found.


1 Syracuse Daily Courier, 27 July 1878

2 Putnam County Republican, 1 January 1898

3 Auburn Citizen, 29 August 1907

4 Courtesy of Wikipedia, William H. Seward Jr.

5 New York State National Guard, Arcadia Press 2006

6 Auburn Citizen, 18 July 1910

7 Auburn Citizen, 15 April 1915

By Rexford M. Ennis

Copyright 2016 Rexford M. Ennis All Rights Reserved

Rex Ennis has written several articles for TI Life.  His bio is recorded in Contributors, in December, 2008. Rex has published two important books on the Thousand Islands.  The first, published in 2010, Toujours Jeune Always Young, the biography of Charles G. Emery was reviewed in the June 2010 issue.  The second, Saints, Sinners and Sailors of the Gilded Age: A compendium of biographical sketches, centered on the Gilded Age, in the Thousand Islands, describes the biographies of every name appearing on an 1889 map, published by Frank H. Taylor, called: “Map of the Thousand Islands; Hotels, Parks and Cottages.”  See the book review in our July 2011 issue; you will find the map described in the July 2010 issue, and in the August 2011 issue.  Luckily for TI Life readers, Rex is hard at work on a new book – so stay tuned.


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Joan M. Stone
Comment by: Joan M. Stone
Left at: 4:57 AM Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Got to love Rex Ennis, outstanding material, should be taught in our schools. The mention of David Parish, land speculator, ship builder, investor is aligned with Stephen Girard who also has great history about the Bonapartes.
Anyone with interest in ship building should visit the Museums in Clayton and Alexandria Bay where the work of Lucian E. Fry is exhibited; the rebuilt 1938 Garwood by my husbands nephew is a great piece of work, "Best of Show". The "Lady Skiff" built by Lucian Fry is on display in the museum in Alexandria Bay. He also built 4 sub chasers in 1919.
Also, William H. Seward Jr. had a brother Frederick W. Seward, assistant Sec. of State April 15, 1865: here are some interesting facts:
Tacitus Clay 1824-1868 married Elizabeth Seward 1837-1882, the dau. of Samuel Seward 1794-1870, son of Daniel 1758, son of Isaac 1738 brother to John Seward 1730-1797 who was the grandfather of Sec. of State William Henry Seward. Tacitus Clay was a Lt .in Co. I, 5th Reg. Texas Brigade under Capt. Jerome Robinson (became Brig. General in Confederate Army).
Prov. Gov. of Texas Andrew Jackson Hamilton recommends a pardon on behalf of Tacitus Clay Nov. 11, 1865. Pardon granted by Pres. Andrew Johnson Jan 25, 1866.
War Letters of Tacitus Clay are historical documents, a must read. This pardon to Tacitus Clay shows the power of family in our politics, would like to know how many others were pardoned. Perhaps Rex has some insights.