An Ode To Rugged Individualism And The War Of Grindstone Island

BY: Lenka Walldroff
Grindstone Island has peppered many of my conversations over the years, but for whatever reason, I’d never paid it much mind, which, I assume is just how islanders like it. I always knew it to be a large land mass vaguely “past” Clayton somewhere, almost in Canada, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I would hear about the island’s quirky distinctions such as hosting the last operating one-room schoolhouse in New York State (closed in 1989), and its unpaved roads. During these conversations, inevitably the idiosyncrasies in my personality would nod to the idiosyncrasies of the island’s, and its “devil may care” attitude toward the 21st century. I’d send a quiet “Bravo!” into the ether to the island’s handful of year-round inhabitants and their rugged individualism, indifferent to the siren song of modern conveniences enjoyed by those just a few miles east in Clayton.
 

    The prevailing opinion is that the island is indeed frozen in time; an utter delight to any historian, armchair- as in my case- or otherwise. Much thanks is due, in this regard, to the Thousand Islands Land Trust (TILT) who works in cooperation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife as well as private conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited.  

    Grindstone Island has been widely written of- in local publications, such as this one, and, surprisingly, as far afield as National Public Radio. There are interesting bits, though, that have been ignored by many of the island’s popular histories, perhaps because their details are too scant. One such event, gleaned from a few paragraphs in Hough’s History of Jefferson County details an interesting little skirmish with British Canada. It was dubbed “The War of Grindstone Island.” 

    The word “war” is perhaps a bit grandiose in describing the event, but one supposes those in charge of naming such things had a particular flare for the dramatic. Much like today’s weathermen, perhaps? The words “Snow Tsunami” come readily to mind as a term written to describe a bit of weather that was scheduled to hit the mid-Atlantic region in late 2019. I don’t now know that anything ever came of that particular storm. 

    But I digress. Back to the “War” of Grindstone Island. 

    It all began during the War of 1812, or thereabouts. Grindstone Island, originally known as Gore Island, was inhabited by various Indian tribes over its 400-year documented history. Originally the Algonquin, then the Iroquois, then the Algonquins again, then the Iroquois regained control. The Iroquois appear to have been routed by the newly independent, and apparently quite irate, Americans for the tribe’s cooperation with the British in the Revolutionary War. As far as can be determined, the Seneca were then given control of the island by the close of the eighteenth century. The Seneca leased the island to various Upper Canada (which, of course, denotes southern Canada) timber companies, who logged the land, and then sold the timber to the British Crown. This went on for a number of years. 

    As a side note, during the War of 1812, Grindstone Island, and indeed, all of the islands in the St. Lawrence River existed in a state of statelessness. That is, they belonged to no one in particular; rather a demilitarized zone between British Canada and the United States. It was only after the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, which effectively ended the War of 1812, that Britain and American began hammering out the specifics of which nation owned which islands. And even then, the American owned islands in the St. Lawrence River did not appear on New York state surveys until 1820. Apparently no one was in a terrible hurry. In 1823, Elisha Camp, who would go on to achieve great fame in our Civil War, bought all the American islands in the St. Lawrence River for an astounding $600- just short of $15,000 in today’s currency. 

    But back to the “war” and the timber leasing. No one paid much mind to what was going on with the Grindstone Island timber until boundaries were finally determined and officially mapped. It then came to the attention of New York authorities that the British were logging on American territory. Predictably, tensions began to rise. According to the Americans, the timber companies were trespassers and poachers. The timber companies defended the legitimacy of their claim to log the land based on the leases negotiated with the Seneca tribe. 

    The business was settled in early 1823 (before Elisha Camp bought the island) as a business in that day was often settled: by the loaded barrel of a gun. On the day in question, a particularly large lot of lumber was cut and prepared by the timber company for its raft journey down the St. Lawrence to Canada, when New York state officials appeared and generally had a “get off my property” conversation with the Canadians. The Americans also demanded that the Canadians unhand their cut lumber. The timber company refused. The New York officials assumed, perhaps rightly, that they would not get anywhere with the timber company by legal or diplomatic means, so a detachment of the New York state militia from the town of Lyme was summoned. By the time the militia arrived, most of the timber had made its way into Canadian waters and thus was lost to the United States. After a few rounds were fired in the general direction of the remaining members of the timber company, the Canadians dispersed. The only man killed in the war was a member of the militia, unfortunately, shot by his own gun during an accidental discharge. In the end, the matter was settled, as wars typically are, by lawyers. The issue went to litigation and was sorted out in arbitration.