The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), October 9, 1948

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Schooner Days
by C. H. J. Snider
Slow Ship’s Long Wake

It would be interesting indeed to find traces of the U.S. ship of war Oneida, however remote, for she was primagenetrix- if there such a word? - of the brief but brilliant generation of American sailing men-of-war on Lake Ontario a hundred and forty years ago.

She was a sister of the U.S. brig Adams built for Lake Erie in 1803 captured by the British early in the War of 1812 and destroyed soon afterwards in an all day battle above the falls of Niagara.

Both these brigs appear to have been unhandy vessels. The Oneida was built by Henry Eagle, foreman ship carpenter from Prussia for the United States Government, at Oswego; possibly at the spot still known as Pea Soup Flats, at the river mouth. She was begun in 1808 and launched in the spring of 1809. Fenimore Cooper was in Oswego at the time, as a midshipman attached to the small naval establishment there along with his brother. He came back to Oswego thirty years later and wrote The Pathfinder in an old frame house on the West Side which they still show you, overlooking both lake and river an the launching place of the Oneida.

The Oneida was slow, but big enough, with eighteen 24-pounders grinning to overawe the honest or dishonest traders of her own or another nation who dared carry freight on Lake Ontario without the O.K. of President Madison. A schooner, Ontario of 70 was built by Porter, Barton and Co. At Lewiston N.Y. in 1809, the year that the Oneida was completed and that year the same firm bought an uncompleted schooner call the Cambria, built on or near the Great or Little Calloo, or Stoney Island or the Calf of Stoney. They brought her to Lewiston and renamed her there Niagara. Before the War of 1812 began, the Oneida snapped up these small schooners, Ontario and Niagara for illegal trading contrary to the Embargo Act.

When trade with Canada was embargoed these vessel must have had difficulty in proving that their freighting was all of American goods in American waters. After being carried to Sackett’s Harbor the naval base, one was restored to her owners but the other was condemned . This was probably the Ontario, which was bought by the government according to Capt. Van Cleve, and served in the War of 1812 as an armed partner of her captor, the Oneida.

On the Brink of War

Just before war was declared, on June 5th 1812, the Oneida chased and in 24 hours caught up with the new British schooner Lord Nelson, built in 1811 by Hon James, and William Crooks, merchants at Newark, now Niagara-on-the-Lake, when she was proceeding on her lawful occasions from Prescott to Niagara with a cargo of flour and other wares. It was a high-handed act-as all trade interferences are-but the British schooner was carried to Sackett’s Harbour, condemned and sold. The Oneida’s commander, Lieutenant Melancthon T. Woolsey, gallantly bought at the vendue a Canadian bride’s silverware which had been making the voyage from Kingston and sent it on her way the compliments of this nephew of Uncle Sam..

Woolsey’s own report on the incident to the Secretary of the Navy shows what traders had to put up with on Lake Ontario under the American embargo law.

U. S. Brig Oneida,
Sackett’s Harbor Roads,
June 9,1812.

Sir, I have the honour to inform you that I sailed on the 3rd instant on a cruise to the westward. On the 4th (off Pultney Ville) discovered three sails to windward apparently (standing?) in for Genesee River- gave chase to them, but night coming on and the weather being too hazy to run in for the mouth of the river hauled off shore for the night under short sail. At daylight on the 5th discovered two schooners (supposed to be two of the three we had chased the day before) standing in for the land. At 7 p.m. we brought to one of the schooners which proved to be the Lord Nelson from Prescott (a port opposite Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence), said to be bound to Newark in Canada. She had no papers on board other than a loose Journal and a bill of lading of a part of her Cargo, but no Register, license or clearance.

Whether it was intended to smuggle her Cargo on our shores or whether she was hovering along our shore to take on board property for the Canadian market in violation of the Embargo law, I was not able to determine. But appearances were such as to warrant a suspicion of her intentions to smuggle both ways I accordingly took her Crew out and sent her with my gunner on board as prize master to this port. After dispatching her I stood off shore in chase of the other schooner which the master of the Lord Nelson informed me was the Mary Hatt also a British schooner but finding that she had crossed the line-I hove up for the port in order to lay up the prize and make my report to the Department. All the proofs which I can collect respecting her voyage I will transmit without delay to the District Attorney.

I have the honour to be
"With much respect
"Your obedient servant
M.T. Woolsey

"The Honorable
Paul Hamilton Esquire
Secretary of the Navy"

This Mary Hatt was captured later on, in November, 1812, by Commodore Chauncey’s fleet which attacked Kingston. The Oneida’s speed and handiness may be judged from the fact that it took her all night and all next day to overhaul even one of the three small vessels sighted in the 25 mile stretch of water between Pultneyville and the Genesee river. When the war did come the Oneida was so slow that she had to be towed to keep her eighteen guns in the line of battle. Her crew were brave enough, but she had to be pushed into the fray, for all the battles on Lake Ontario were running fights.

The capture of the trading schooners and the Lord Nelson were the Oneida’s greatest successes, and the last named cost her country a pretty penny, for this British schooner, confiscated, dead and buried in Niagara sand and U.S. navy lists, lived on for 117 years in the law courts.

Fumbled Rescue.

Old Commodore Earle had made a fumbling attempt to take her away from Sackets by force, wasting broadsides on the water there from the Royal George, Prince Regent, Earl of Moira. Simcoe and Seneca the whole British fleet at that time, July 29th 1812. But in spite of this futile gesture the Lord Nelson, condemned as a smuggler or freetrader, was, like the Ontario, "bought by the government" and became an unwilling unit in the improvised American war fleet. She was renamed the Scourge, and crammed with cannon, one long 32 pounder, which was plenty for her, and eight 12s, which was eight too many. That is why she rolled over and drowned her crew in a midnight squall off Niagara on August 8th 1813, with the British fleet in chase of her. Niagara steamers yet ply over her hull somewhere in the deep water north of the Niagara bar,

But this was not the end of her, when the war was over the Americans admitted that they had been wrong to seize the Lord Nelson, wrong to condemn her, wrong to use her and lose her in battle. In 1817 the district court of New York where she had been libeled and sold, awarded James Crooks and his brother William $5,000 damages, considered, as a customary, a "large sum in those days." It was what the vessel had been sold for when the U.S. government bought her in at the auction. It was so large that the clerk of the court, Theron Rudd, absconded with the money. President Monroe in 1818 recommended to Congress payment of the judgment and in 1837 the House of Representatives passed a bill but the Senate killed it. President Cleveland recommended it to Congress again 1886. Before 1914 Hon, James Bryce, British Ambassador, and Philander Knox included the "ancient grudge" in a treaty form disposing of all outstanding claims and in March of that year the claims tribunal allowed on Claim NO. 20, as it was called $5,000. With simple interest at 4 per cent. From February 3rd 1819 to April 26,1912 making $23,644.38. Compound interest for the 93 years would have brought $5,000 up to a million.

Justice still lagged, like the Oneida herself. In 1914 A.D. Crooks, Toronto lawyer and grandson of the Hon. James Crooks, had gone to Washington to press the claim, Hon. A. W. Roebuck, KC, now Senator was later associated with him in the effort to complete the negotiations. But it was the end of 1927 before the money was paid over by the United States to Ottawa, and two years more before the heirs got it, or what was left of it. "Arbitration charges" and the Lord knows what whittled the potential million and actual $23,644.38 down to $15,546.63 in take home money. This was for distribution to twenty five beneficiaries selected from a hundred claimants. It was a curious light on population in North American that the post office address of none of the beneficiaries was old Newark, when the Crooks brothers traded and built their schooner and fought behind gallant Brock at Queenston Heights. The heirs were scattered thousands of miles apart. An eighteen year old list of the beneficiaries at Osgoode Hall gives these beneficiaries of 117 years of litigation:

From Toronto-A.D. Crooks, and Henry J. Bethune. Hamilton- William R. Servos. Grace E. Servos, Mary B Servos, William R Feast, Charles O. Servos and Margaret Servos. Augusta E. Williams and Alexander S. Crooks, Manistique, Mich; Martha V. Irvine, Fenelon Falls, Ont.; Alfred E. Crooks, and Eva T. Crooks, Benton Harbor Mich. Alfred R. Feast, Baltimore Md.; Ethelinda M. Smith, Burford, Ont.: Harry Servos, Buffalo, N.Y. Mary K. Feast, Brantford, ON.: Katherine E. Curry, Culver City Cal. Johnson A. Crooks, Rutland B. C. Agnes E. Hardie, Vancouver B.C. Margaret A. Elves, Port Angeles, Wash.: Helen A. Orr, North Vancouver, B. C., Frances I. Barbour, Sequin, Wash; Janet C. Thompson, North Vancouver, B.C., Edith M. Montgomery., Regina, Sask.

Oneida’s Fate

The Oneida was stripped and sunk at Sackett’s Harbor soon after the war ended. She was reported "decayed" in a U.S. navy list of 1819. But in 1827 she was refloated by Capt. Robt. Hugunin, repaired and refitted for the timber trade. Being straight tubby and built like a box she would be a good timber carrier. She was enrolled in 1829 under the new name Adjutant Clitz and plied her calling until 1837, where she was abandoned at Clayton N.Y. and possibly broken up for her metal work. We have not been able to find proof that hers was the "Old Wreck" believed to be the Sylph’s sunk there in 1843.

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October 9, 1948
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Richard Palmer
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), October 9, 1948