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Visiting the Intriguing Oneida Lake, New York: An Absorbing History & Remembering Alexis de Tocqueville's Visit, 1831

State flag of New York

State flag of New York

Photo of Oneida Lake from the Yacht Club in Cicero, NY

Photo of Oneida Lake from the Yacht Club in Cicero, NY

Alexis de Tocqueville Photogravure from a steel engraving from 1899 edition of "Democracy In America"

Alexis de Tocqueville Photogravure from a steel engraving from 1899 edition of "Democracy In America"

Roaring silence from the past

Oneida Lake in New York is an intriguing place. Not remotely as big as any of the Great Lakes, its 79.8 square mile (207 square kilometre) size yet makes it the largest lake wholly within the State of New York.

Although it is not one of the Finger Lakes, it is sometimes referred to as the Thumb of the Finger Lakes. (The above photo supplied is taken from Cicero Yacht Club.)

Today, Oneida Lake with its sometimes elusive, far horizon, draws numerous recreational visitors.

But historically, by its very location, Oneida Lake was a place that diverse travellers — Native American, English, French — would travel through, as well as to. In the early 19th century the Erie Canal was completed; previously Oneida Lake served as a much used crossing for travellers across post-Independence and Colonial New York.

Interestingly, in the early 20th century, a steamer named 'Sagamore' still plied across the Lake, its name reminiscent of Sagamore Hill, President Theodore Roosevelt's New York property of that name.

In 1831, Oneida Lake received a visit from someone who is more usually associated with the exercise of high office in France and for his searching historical commentaries regarding society in France and the United States. This was Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)(1).

In the middle of Oneida Lake is a now uninhabited island known as Frenchman's Island, on which a State Park accessible only by boat, today exists. The island was once said to have been inhabited by a French family by the name of Desvatines (who at various times were also said to have lived at different locations on the Lake's mainland shore). The family was described as having been active, together with Native Americans, in salmon fishing in the Lake.

And so in 1831 the chronicler Alexis de Tocqueville took it upon himself to seek out traces of the French family rumoured to have lived on Frenchman's Island, and to look for the house in which they had lived. Alas, he found little trace of former human settlement on the thickly wooded island, although he did find a wild grapevine, suggestive of former attempts at cultivation. Above all de Tocqueville commented upon the profound silence which reigned on Frenchman's Island (2).

Interestingly, in the former Upper Canada (now known as Ontario) demographic 'islands' of French-speakers of various sizes survived for hundreds of years among English-speaking local communities. Some of these date back to the 17th and 18th century Voyageurs, who travelled extensively from Montreal and maintained extensive trade contacts among First Nations / Native North Americans over a huge area of North America. Many of these Voyageurs are well known for having ventured far into what is now the United States.

Tradition has it, however, that Oneida Lake's famous but elusive French family was from a French aristocratic background; one version of the legend that surrounds the family holds that Madame Desvatines was a French heiress.

In the wider area, Oneida County, Oneida Creek, Oneida Castle (referring to a Native American tradition of fortified villages) and the City of Oneida all refer to the same Native American people who historically formed part of the Iroquois Confederacy (or Haudenosaunee). During the Revolutionary War era, various of the Native American peoples responded different ways to the competing American Patriot and United Empire Loyalist persuasions.

The Oneida Lake vicinity is where two cultures met in the 18th century ... or, if we are to include French: three cultures. To develop as a metaphor the silence at Oneida Lake's Frenchman's Island of which de Tocqueville wrote, sometimes the silence can be deafening as we consider the emerging competing influences of the various cultures that have made their mark around Oneida Lake.

March 11, 2019


(1) The Tocqueville Centre, at Reading University, England, where I studied a number of decades ago, was established as a research centre for the study and publishing of Alexis de Tocqueville's works.

(2) See also:

Alexis de Tocqueville, tr. G. Bevan, Democracy in America , Penguin, 2003 (includes 'Excursion to Lake Oneida').

Some sourcing: Wikipedia

Interstate 81 going through Brewerton, NY

Interstate 81 going through Brewerton, NY

Canada Geese on Lake Oneida, at Verona Beach State Park in New York State.

Canada Geese on Lake Oneida, at Verona Beach State Park in New York State.

Map of the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

Map of the Finger Lakes region of New York State.

Also worth seeing

(Distances from Brewerton:)

At Brewerton, on Oneida Lake, is the Blockhouse Museum, operated by the Fort Brewerton Historical Society; a reproduction of a 1759 structure is open to the public.

At Syracuse, New York, (distance: 15.8 miles / 25.4 kilometres), Clinton Square has many examples of noted architecture; Temple Concord is a synagogue dating from 1839; museums in the city include the Erie Canal Museum and the Everson Museum of Art, with an extensive pottery collection; Crouse College at Syracuse University, is a striking, late 19th century Richardson Romanesque building; the domed Ondonaga County Courthouse, in Beaux Arts style, dates from 1906.

Boldt Castle on Heart Island, accessible via Alexandria Bay (distance: 84.5 miles / 136 kilometres). The castle's Yacht House, on Wellesley Island, with its boat collection, is also in its own right listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1000 Islands Skydeck, Hill Island, Canada (distance: 86.4 miles / 139 kilometres); nearest large town in Canada: Gananoque. This tower facility with an observation deck 130 metres high offers outstanding 360 degree views of the Thousand Islands. Hill Island is situated between the Thousand Islands Bridge and Wellesley Island, New York.


How to get there: The shoreline of Oneida Lake is accessible from Interstate 81 (Exit 31). Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR), at Syracuse, New York (distance from Brewerton, NY: 10.2 miles / 18 kilometers) is served by Delta Connection, offering scheduled flights to New York airports, with wide flight connections; a variety of car rental options is available at SYR. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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