Early Trade in Oswego
Although the present trade of Oswego is principally of modern growth, its commencements are of an ancient character and its history extends through a period of more than 200 years. In 1603 the French settled Montreal and soon after established trading posts through the chain of lakes. During the most of the intervening period Oswego has been a trading and military post in some degree and during the French and Revolutionary Wars a considerable trade was carried on between this point and Schenectady, from whence merchandise, baggage, etc., were forwarded in boats for different points on Lake Ontario by way of Mohawk River, Wood Creek, Oneida Lake, and the Oneida and Oswego Rivers.
The navigation of this route was difficult and embarrassed by a number of portages, where freight had to be landed and transported over land.
The route between Oswego and Schenectady above traced, came under the control of "The Western Inland Lock & Navigation Co." somewhere about 1792. This company constructed a canal from the Mohawk River near Rome, to Wood Creek which empties into Oneida Lake. They also locked Wood Creek and built locks on the Mohawk at German Flats. These improvements were completed in 1799 or 1800 so that the water communication was made passable for the boats used in those days.
The Western freight was drawn by teams from Albany to Schenectady and considerable quantities of furs, which constituted the staple articles of down freight, were drawn in like manner from Schenectady to Albany.
At about this period the forwarding business at Oswego was done by Archibald Fairfield who owned and ran two small vessels on the lake and by Messrs. Sharpe and Vaughn who owned one vessel of about 50 tons burden called "The Jane of Genesee," where she was built.
Onondaga salt forms as now an important item in the commercial business of Oswego, this being its only outlet to market. Of the quantity manufactured and shipped through Oswego at this period, say 1800, we have no account.
At about this period Messrs. E and D. Alvord of Salina made a contract for the delivery of 1,000 barrels per year, for several years to a company at Meadville, pa., at three dollars a barrel. The salt was forwarded by Oswego to Queenston and thence by teams around the Falls to Chippewa, or Street's store house two miles as above and then shipped to Erie. From thence it was transported by land 14 miles to Waterford where it waited the swelling of streams from the Fall rains, where it was carried by arks to Meadville and Pittsburgh.
In 1803 there was manufactured at the Salina works 16,000 bushels of salt and 10,000 bushels in 1804. Nearly all this salt must have gone to market through Oswego, the center and western parts of this state being at that time a dense wilderness without markets, roads or means of conveyance.
In April 1802 Mr. Matthew McNair came to Oswego and engaged in the forwarding business in 1803. He is now the oldest forwarder and one of the oldest residents of Oswego and we take pleasure in acknowledging our obligations to him for most of the foregoing facts.
On commencing the storage and forwarding business in 1803 Mr. McNair bought the schooner Jane of Genesee, her name being changed to Peggy. At this time the forwarding business in Oswego received a considerable impetus from the completion of the improvements of the Western Inland Lock & Navigation Co. Considerable quantities of merchandise came through from Schenectady in boats which navigated the Lake Ontario and carried their cargoes to Kingston, Niagara and Sackets Harbor, which had just begun to be settled. Some of the Schenectady boats went up the Bay of Quinty, where settlements were made by the Tories who had fled from the U.S. during the Revolutionary War.
A portion of the merchandise arrived at Oswego and was shipped by British vessels owned at Kingston, and by the North Western Fur Company, now forming a branch of the Hudson's Bay Company, and whoa t the last mentioned date owned many fine vessels and the largest portion of the shipping on Lake Ontario. Kingston, York (now Toronto), Niagara and Queenston flourished as villages, while Oswego had but six or seven families, Genesee two or three log cabins and Lewiston about the same.
There was a portage at Oswego Falls (now the village of Fulton) and most of the merchandise was landed and carried one mile. The boats were also drawn around the Falls. Sometimes the Schenectady boats were run over the Falls with their cargoes.
The sail boats were of a larger class and were always unloaded at the Upper Landing and returned to Salt Point, while the salt was carted around the Falls and received by a different class of boats at the Lower Landing, which ran between Oswego and the Falls.
During the year 1803 Mr. McNair thinks about 5,000 barrels of salt were shipped from Oswego to Queenston, which was then the port to which all merchandise going around the Falls was shipped. After this period there was a rapid increase in the manufacture of salt at Salina and in the forwarding business at Oswego.
In 1804 Mr. Wilson, a government contractor, built a fine schooner of 90 tons burden called "The Fair American." In the Fall and Winter of the same year Mr. McNair built another of 50 tons, called the "Linda" and immediately after the house with which he was connected purchased a number of Canadian vessels.
Commerce was then unshackled by artificial contrivances. No custom house regulations were interposed to free national resources. No license was then required and no papers had to be certified by oath. The sharp pointed and keen scented Custom House officer had not yet smelt out the shores of the Great Lakes.
In 1809 McNair & Company built a fine schooner, and in 1810 they built another. In the same year the house of Bronson & Company built one and Porter, Barton & Company built one. These were vessels of from 80 to 100 tons burden. In 1806 Porter, Barton & Co. built a road round the Falls on the American side from Lewiston to Schlosser, but this did not divert the trade from the Queenston route till it was stopped by the non intercourse and embargo laws of 1808.