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A re-enactor keeps an eye on a bateau skirmish on the St. Lawrence River from Lighthouse Point, Ogdensburg at last summer's Founder's Day weekend. Photo: Todd Moe
A re-enactor keeps an eye on a bateau skirmish on the St. Lawrence River from Lighthouse Point, Ogdensburg at last summer's Founder's Day weekend. Photo: Todd Moe

In Ogdensburg, reenactors get close to the history they treasure

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Ogdensburg commemorates events 250 years ago that shaped its history during "Founder's Day Weekend". It opens Saturday morning on Lighthouse Point. Todd Moe visits Prescott, Ontario -- just across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg -- to talk with Canadian reenactor Michael Whittaker about recreating life along the St. Lawrence in the 18th century.

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Todd Moe
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Michael Whittaker: Yeah sitting here in Prescott looking across the river we see Ogdensburg and Lighthouse Point where Founders Day weekend will be held July 20 and 21. Ogdensburg’s commemoration of its French colonial heritage and in particular the 1760 Battle of the Thousand Islands, which was the last battle of the French and Indian war before Crown forces descended on Montreal and made New France, Quebec an English colony.

We can look out here and we can see, as I said, where the last battle took place. It was a two-part battle right where we’re looking to the river. It’s where the French corvette l'Outaouaise was captured in August of 1760 by British gunboats. They were armed only in the bow or highly maneuverable, so they were able over two hours to shoot up the French vessel through the stern and up through the bow, and the French eventually had to strike their colors.

The English forces, really an Anglo-American army moved a few miles downriver and put gun emplacements on islands and what is now the New York and Ontario shores and bombarded the Fort de L’eve that had maybe 300 French and Canadian defenders and in a matter of days pounded it to kindling and dust.

There are a whole lot of little keys, little nuggets throughout history and places that are really important and Ogdensburg is one of those. It was a French fort--La Presentation. It was an area where native allies lived and were recruited by the French in their raids against the English and colonists in the Champlain Valley, in the Mohawk and down into the Ohio. And when it was taken over by the English it was a fort that was used by crown forces during the American Revolution. And raids went down into the Mohawk Valley.

In fact, that was the only way to get there easily especially if you were trying to flank the Americans. You sent someone up this way and around this very same ledge. He was there and just about any name you read in history that went into the interior of North America as part of the French colonial experience or of the English colonial experience in Canada up until 1796, they passed through Ogdensburg, because even though there were people living on the Ontario side, Prescott wasn’t surveyed into lots until 1810. So Ogdensburg was the place to go; as many people know, you went to Daniel Parish’s store. And if Daniel Parish didn’t have it, you weren’t going to get it.

Todd Moe: It was the place.

MW: It was the place, and of course everything he had in there had to come up the St. Lawrence River through Montreal. That’s another piece of history that we’re dealing with, the War of 1812.

TM: I think we’ve talked about this before, but talk to us for just a moment about the sort of joy for you as a re-enactor and historian, and just that sort of personal connection you have with this history.

MW: I like the feel of the clothes, especially those of the 18th century of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution--the civilian clothes around the War of 1812. If one dresses the period it gives the person a bit more appreciation for the history, get the feel of it. I know women who are just committed to getting it right.

TM: Right down to the threads and the buttons…

MW: The threads, the buttons—well, there are people out there who count threads and look at the fabric and look to see if it’s been hand sewn or machine sewn. But to wear the clothes gives an appreciation for our ancestors. Now we’re fortunate that we can do what we can and go home and have a shower. Our ancestors weren’t so lucky. They kind of washed their hands, their faces, and their feet and that was good enough for a while. And knowing that the scent of smoke even after shower seems to exude from the body for days afterwards, it was just like we can hardly imagine. So, I do the best to imagine.

Michael is one of the organizers of Founder’s Day Weekend at Fort La Presentation at Lighthouse Point in Ogdensburg. This commemoration of French colonial heritage includes land and water battle reenactments, period dancing and music, heritage demonstrations, activities for families, more than a dozen colorful reenactment units portraying 18th century regiments of the French and English armies.

Their colonial militias and native allies will establish their canvas camps on Lighthouse Point and along the shore, bateau--traditional boats--will mark the navy encampment. There will be reenact battles both Saturday and Sunday afternoon and lots of events going on at Lighthouse Point reenacting and remembering the history of Ogdensburg.  For more information, check out www.fort1749.org.

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