Comprising a large portion of the State’s vast and sparsely populated “North Country,” Lewis County remains geographically isolated and unmistakably rural. Agrarian through its center, but otherwise heavily wooded, it is often defined topographically in relation to the Black River, whose fertile valley splits the County south to north, with the ancient Adirondacks to our east and the vast Tug Hill plateau on our west. And it is largely because of this remoteness that our history only begins to take shape in earnest in the 1790s, when intrepid French and New England settlers first started setting down roots here.
Officially, our birthday is March 28, 1805, the date on which Lewis County sprung forth from a part of Oneida County. Our actual existence, however, was negotiated the prior year, on November 20, 1804, when several dozen of the leading movers and shakers from the various towns across the North County rode into the small hamlet of Denmark and assembled as delegates at the tavern of Revolutionary War veteran Captain Freedom Wright to discuss the area’s future. No such notable group had ever before gathered together in the North Country.
Up from Lowville rode Silas Stow, Capt. Jonathan Rogers and Charles Davenport, while from Turin, came the widely esteemed Judge Jonathan Collins, along with Major John Ives and Ilijah Wadsworth. From Brownville had come Jacob Brown, later hero of the War of 1812 and general-in-chief of the United States Army, with his lieutenants, John W. Collins and Benjamin Cole. Champion had a strong delegation that included the young lawyer Egbert Ten Eyck and the influential doctor, John Durkee. Henry Coffeen, Hart Massey and others were in from Watertown. Surprisingly, Col. Walter Martin from Martinsburg was not present (in hindsight, perhaps not all that surprising, as it was said that he and Silas Stow of Lowville disagreed and bickered over most any issue), but he sent his brother-in-law, Chillus Doty, and his friends, Asa Brayton and Clark McCarthy. So too were Moss Kent, skilled in the ways of debate, Lewis Graves, Charles Wright, Clift French and Joshua Beale all there. Indeed, most of the major North Country towns were represented – 36 delegates in all – because it was a meeting of the greatest importance.
The odds-on betting going in was in favor of the organization of a single new county stretching from the western Adirondacks to the shores of Lake Ontario, with the county seat in Champion, as the assembled delegates were thought to favor that outcome. But put a bunch of boys in a bar and the expected outcome is not always a given. Apparently there was considerable debate – votes were close and in several instances the delegates divided 18 to 18. In the end, however, by a 20 to 16 margin, the delegates ultimately decided to petition the Legislature for a bill separating from Oneida County and creating not one, but two new counties – Jefferson (to be named for the then President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson) and Lewis (to be named for the then Governor of New York, Morgan Lewis).
That is but a bit of our early history. And for many of you, with due apologies to Longfellow:
“You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the County grew up, it is commonly said –
Loggers and tanners and millers were these,
Dairy farms, hops and paper and cheese.
The canal came in and the railroads too,
Our County thrived for a time; everything new.
Wars took place, things started to change,
Our kids hit the road, quite far did they range.
But even today there’s still much to write,
For the past shapes our future; please get that right!
We’ve more to report, come see us some time,
History’s our game, not so well do we rhyme.”
For those of you who would like to learn more of the history of Lewis County, please come see us at the Lewis County Historical Society… or just keep reading to find out about “Little Lewis,” the early indigenous peoples, Macomb’s Purchase, early land speculation, the “Great Tracts,” who our first settlors were and where they settled, and how Lewis County came to be and grow.