Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Musket Mystery of the Main Duck: Schooner Days CL (150)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 4 Aug 1934
Full Text
Musket Mystery of the Main Duck
Schooner Days CL (150)


WE let go in the lee of the Main Duck, in four fathoms of water so clear we could see our 160-lb anchor lying on its side on the stony bottom. It looked small, about half its proper size, in the refracted light.

Twelve miles from the nearest land - Point Traverse, the southeasterly tip of Prince Edward County - and twenty miles from Kingston, the Main Duck lies practically in mid-lake. It is the largest of a long group of islands at the easterly end of Ontario, known collectively as The Ducks. The Main Duck's nearest egg is Yorkshire Island, a quarter of a mile off. Farther west, and nearer Point Traverse, are the False Duck, the Duckling, Timber island, and a wicked layout of small duck eggs in reefs and boulders.

King Cole's fish tug from Cape Vincent had just reached the Main Duck ahead of us. We could see where she lay at the little dock in the natural harbor, four hundred yards away. Young Mr. Cole, the Crown Prince, so to speak, pulled out in a skiff and courteously told us to make ourselves at home. His father, Mr. C. W. Cole, of Cape Vincent, N.Y., owns this Canadian island. He offered to pilot us into the tiny harbor, but as the royal tug had difficulty with her 7 feet 6 inches draft and we wanted eight feet under us for comfort, we adhered to our apparently diminished anchor.

All this happened only a fortnight ago. We made the voyage in a further attempt to read the riddle of the Main Duck. The riddle is still unread. Your solution will be welcome.

The riddle is this:

Local tradition, that sister of history from the wrong side of the blanket, insists that before the conquest of Canada in 1760, when the French and English each had a fleet of men-of-war on Lake Ontario, two French ships came to grief in a snowstorm on Charity Shoal, eight miles northeast of this island.

One got off, badly battered, and with the survivors of the other wrecked vessel, drifted across to the Main Duck. They tried to drive her over the bar, into the little boat harbor, but she fetched up to leeward of it, being unmanageable after her mauling on the Charity and pounded her bottom out below Graveyard Point.

The survivors, reaching land on rafts and spars, salvaged what they could of provisions, war stores and treasure, including the pay chest, before their vessel went to pieces. They prepared to winter on the island, if not rescued earlier, for their small boats had been destroyed.

They first buried the French gold, in case their rescuers should prove to be English. Then they buried their dead washed up by the waves. Then they buried more dead as by ones and twos they perished of cold, exposure and short rations of spoiled provisions.

At length only one man was left He had buried all his companions His skeleton was found alone, far from their graves, many years afterwards. He had apparently perished of hunger, on the south or lakeward side of the island, watching the water-bound horizon which never showed a sail.

So much for tradition—for which, let me say from the beginning, not only one word of corroboration has been discovered so far in Pouchot or Parkman or the Canadian Archives or the Department of the Marine and Colonies in Paris, or any other "authority," French or English.

That it has not yet been discovered does not prove that it is not there. Labroquerie's map of 1757, made at Frontenac (Kingston) shows the Ducks, Main and False, plainly enough, though the map is drawn upside down. The Main Duck and Yorkshire are called "Illes des coins du large," and an anchor is marked at the spot where this wreck drove in.

An anchor, on a chart, is not used to indicate a wreck, but holding ground. The anchor on Labroquerie's map proves that where we anchored a fortnight ago the French anchored two hundred years before.

Now for fact.

William Thompson, one of the Main Duck fishermen, has fished from the island for twenty-three seasons. His father, the late Isaiah Thompson, fished there for forty-seven.

In Isaiah Thompson's time - and in Jackson Bongard's, ninety years ago, and in Nelson Palmateer's boyhood - the northeasterly face of the Main Duck was full of graves.

That was why the tongue of land to the south of the boat-harbor was called Graveyard Point. Seventy years ago these graves were low mounds, some of them marked with headstones formed by setting the limestone slabs of the beach up on end, others unmarked.

The graves were not all on the Point, for human bones, military buttons, bayonets, sword-blades, grape shot and cannon balls were dug up all around the harbor. One group of human skulls was found when ploughing up an old orchard. They were near a log shelter which served as a pig sty.

North of the harbor, nearer the bluff and Schoolhouse Bay than Graveyard Point, half a dozen graves were found. Some trace of these still remains, in shallow depressions and upended stones. The writer saw them.

Farther on, in a wood near the bluff on the north face of the island, is a boulder weighing the better part of a ton. On its face is rudely chiseled a number or a date, either 1764 or 1769. The writer saw it, too.

Isaiah Thompson was on the island when the boulder was pointed out, seventy years ago. One of the islanders was obsessed with the idea of buried treasure. He began with the undisputed presence of graves and war relics, and cited the story which the "old folks" - one would give much to know their source of information! - had passed down about the two French men-of-war, and the buried chest of gold.

To this tradition the treasure-hunter appealed, and the island was soon pitted with holes made by him and others in their search. Even the graves were opened. Bones but no gold was found. Then the seeker became haunted by nightmares of the buried soldiers and sailors reproaching him for disturbing their rest, and he left the island. He never came back. But before he departed he showed the big boulder with the carved date, as corroboration of his story or theory.

Isaiah Thompson, being a level-headed fisherman, suspected the figures "1769" or "1764" might have been carved by the gold hunter himself to quicken the imagination of his fellow islanders.

This much is certain: The boulder is still there, and the date is on it. The writer has examined it as well as the graves. But neither date fits the French regime. The English were in control of Lake Ontario from 1760 onwards.

And when Isaiah Thompson was fishing from the island a lake schooner, anchored for shelter opposite the boat harbor in a westerly wind, brought up a brass cannon on her anchor flukes when it came time for her to weigh. The cannon was taken to Point Traverse, on the mainland, and Jackson Bongard, the father of Fred Bongard, who is still fishing from the Point, examined it. It was taken away, presumably to Kingston.

Some say it had French lettering on it, which none could decipher. The enscrolled "G.R. III.", which embosses many British guns cast in George the Third's reign, might well be taken for "French lettering" by Victorian fishermen.

When Nelson Palmateer, of Picton, spent Christmas on the Main Duck in the Jessie Brown, sixty years ago. the graves were still numerous and noticeable on Graveyard Point, and at a short distance from the point were the timbers of an ancient wreck. Capt. Palmateer described this wreck to the writer only last year. He believed it was the remains of either a French vessel, or a man-of-war of the period of 1812. The wreck lay in about two fathoms, in an opening then known and still known by the euphonious and fragrant name of Guts Bay. This is the spot where for generations the fishermen have dumped their offal after cleaning their catch.

So to Guts Bay, piloted by William Thompson, steered we in the yacht's jollyboat.

There was a rank smell on the beach, but the gulls are such good scavengers that the gravel was picked clean even of scales. A few silvery fish heads, dropped by the birds in aerial quarrels over their booty, could be seen on the bottom through the clear still water. That water was strangely sterile and free from organic matter. The stones below were as clean as in a gravel pit. There was no weed, no moss, no marine growth or algae. A watersnake wriggling along the bottom in pursuit of a black lizard left not the slightest trail of stirred-up silt. Everything looked as though it were preserved in alcohol.

The larger stones were boulders and slabs of limestone, often as flat and square-edged as though laid with chisel and spirit-level. Among them, just where Capt. Palmateer must have seen it sixty years ago, lie the remains of the old man-of-war, French, English or American, whose mystery has haunted the site for a century.

There is not much left her; not nearly as much as when Capt. Palmateer was a boy, and the wreckage could be traced for a hundred feet or more. All that could be seen on the 21st of July, 1934, was a few shattered planks and some frames or timbers - ribs, as the landsman likes to have them called.

Some of these were fished up with a twelve-foot pike pole. They had been worn down until they were not readily recognizable. One rib which judged by its curve and width across its face may have been once eight inches square, had been rasped down by constant fiction against the limestone bottom unto it was only two inches thick. The wood of one side had been worn until the six and eight-inch spikes which held the planking to it showed in ridges. The had-wrought iron spikes had, apparently, fastened plank two inches or more in thickness.

All the wood recovered was white oak, deepened in color to a dark brown, almost black, from long submersion; there was no weed or fur on it; only a little fine sand. There were evidences of treenail fastening, such as was prevalent in wooden ships of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed, treenails - long wooden pins - are used still in Nova Scotia; the Bluenose has lots of them in her hull and is the better for it.

Among the limestone slabs and the detached planks William Thompson pointed out what has, for generations, been the show-piece of this wreck; a large wooden rudder.

The rudder stock, which is the round post to which the blade is attached, was eight or nine feet long and about eight inches in diameter The blade, seemingly six inches thick, was about four feet across at the bottom, and came up the stock for half its length. The shoulder, or top of the blade, was rounded off in a quarter circle of about three foot radius.

The result was a rudder blade almost as wide as it was deep, which is certainly not usual in sailing vessels of the old type, and is seldom found anywhere except in barges.

But there is some reason for believing that only half of the rudder is left, and the lower half has been broken off, rudder post and all possibly when the ship drove on the shore, stern first, or when she struck the Charity Shoal. Without lifting the rudder from the water to examine it this could not be determined for the bottom part didn't look ragged. But it was significant that only one hole for the pintle-straps which hang the rudder to the sternpost was to be seen. This was a large opening, about six inches below the top of the blade, in the usual position.

Normally there would be at least one more such opening, near the bottom or heel of the rudder, for the lowest pintle-strap, and often there were other pintle straps in between the top and bottom. But only the opening of the upper one is there. The conclusion is that the rudder has been broken squarely in two, either at the lower pintle or at the first one below the top. In that case the blade must have been eight feet or more deep, which is in better proportion for its width.

If the blade is complete the rudder belonged to a shoal vessel of about 4 feet draught. If only half of its depth or less is there the ship was a large one, corresponding to the 125 feet length which Capt. Palmateer accorded the wreckage.

It would not be a difficult job to lift the rudder and examine it, but it would require more plant than a yacht's dinghy and a pike-pole.

In William Thompson's father's time his nets brought up a flintlock musket, off the bluff, about two miles northwest of the boat harbor on the Main Duck. Two years ago another Thompson, Donald, of Point Traverse, and his partner, Cecil W. Lobb, brought up three more flintlock muskets and some ancient swordblades.

I have one of those flintlocks, and after carting it around to the Military Institute, the Provincial Archives, the Royal Ontario Museum, and sundry private ballistic experts, it seems certain that it is a muzzle loading musket of that Springfield pattern which was issued to the American troops in 1779, and was used by them in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It corresponds almost exactly to the Springfield flintlock in the admirable collection of arms in the Royal Ontario Museum. But the Springfield was first made in France, for the revolting colonists, after the pattern of the French musket known as the Charleville; so that these Main Duck flintlocks might be French weapons after all.

The one I have has the flint still held in the original leather grip, and its ramrod is fitted beneath the barrel. The muzzle had been buried for 19 inches or so in the clay bottom of the bluff, and is somewhat corroded at the very tip. The wood of the stock and butt is very little decayed.

It is not, the experts agree, a contemporary English "Brown Bess," or Tower musket, such as our troops used in the War of 1812 and in the century preceding; as far back as Queen Anne's time, I believe. The Brown Bess did not have the two metal straps binding stock and barrel which distinguish the Springfield and Charleville.

That spoils two very pretty identifications which seemed to account for these muskets off the Main Duck, without accounting for the graves and the wreck story. In the New York Colonial Documents is a letter from the Marquis de Vaudreuil, July 5th, 1756, from Montreal, in which he speaks of "our two corsairs" (cruisers) between the Islands of Couis (Ille des Coins?) and the Galops (Galloo, in the Main Duck vicinity) capturing an English sloop armed with six patereros, or swivel guns, and twelve muskets, and chasing another English vessel which only escaped by cutting loose the boat he was towing and throwing a number of things overboard. Muskets might have been among the things jettisoned off the Ducks.

Another even more convincing explanation was in the diary of Commander Wingfield, R.N., who, as a lieutenant, was in command of the American prize-schooner Julia, renamed Confiance, convoying a British fleet of six small transports from York to Kingston in October, 1813. They were chased and captured off the Ducks by the American fleet under Commodore Chauncey, although one of them escaped under Yorkshire Island. Commander Wingfield wrote:

"We let out our reefs and made all possible sail, but being only in ballast trim, and a heavy short sea breaking which drove us to leeward, and without any place to run to for shelter, it was certain we should be captured. I ordered all arms and ammunition and whatever could be come at, to be thrown overboard or destroyed (including a 50-foot gig, carried on deck, to be repaired at the Kingston dockyard.) I also desired the master of the schooner I had in tow to be prepared to send his men on board us, and set his vessel on fire. For this purpose she was hauled up on our quarter, and when cleared she was set on fire and cut adrift.

"At half-past six the American schooner Sylph, of 14 guns, running up alongside within hail, fired a shot ahead, and the American flagship General Pike being close astern of her, I hauled down the pendant and hove to; at this time four other vessels to windward had struck. The Americans captured five vessels, one was burnt and one escaped; with two hundred soldiers of De Watteville's German Regiment."

Wingfield littered the lake bottom of the Ducks with flintlocks, swords and bayonets that evening before he was taken; but they would almost certainly be Brown Besses. The only possibility of them being Springfields would be if the captured Julia had retained some of her American muskets when she was made over into the Confiance, convoy schooner; if the De Wattevilles were armed in part with muskets taken from the enemy.

Even this would not account for the brass cannon, the wreck, the graves and the boulder marked 1764 or 1769.

So the Main Duck mystery remains a mystery.

One word, though, about the Charity Shoal, from which the wreck is supposed to have come. The shoal, very perilous and very ancient, is marked on Labroquerie's lake chart of 1757, but is not named. It is said to have gained its appellation from the schooner Charity, one of the first English trading vessels built on Lake Ontario. She was launched at Niagara in 1770, and measured 70 tons, and was lost on this shoal in the last quarter of the 18th century.


Ontario Intelligencer, Belleville,


"Still another memory of old-time sailing days in this district was resurrected today by the reported discovery in the local harbor of the ancient timbers of the once popular and well-known schooner, Mary Foster. The huge steam dredge, busily at work deepening the harbor just east of the government dock to-day had displaced some of the long forgotten timbers of the old-time boat, buried for the past two decades or more under water. Waterfront men gathered in boats to reap a harvest of the wood which was in such an excellent state of preservation that it floated readily on top of the water when removed from the silt and gravel which formed its burying place."

Who has something to tell about the Mary Foster?


FRENCH FLEET ON LAKE ONTARIO, 1757—drawn from Labroquerie's map in the British Museum for the John Ross Robertson Collection of Canadian Historical Pictures.

Bay Where Antique Rudder Lies

Where Skulls were Ploughed p in Old Orchard

Graveyard Point, Main Duck

BOULDER WITH DATE 1769 or 1764 in vicinity of a group of graves on Main Duck Island.


Snider, C. H. J.
Media Type
Item Type
Date of Publication
4 Aug 1934
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
Richard Palmer
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
WWW address
Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Musket Mystery of the Main Duck: Schooner Days CL (150)