Pioneer Times in Oswego
by Arvin Rice
The following article is a richly detailed, first-person account of the
rigors of pioneer life on the frontier.
Oswego Commercial Times, March 19, 1859
At a meeting called at the Cobble Stone School House, district number
two, town of Oswego, for the purpose of reaffirming the name of Union
Village, the Hon. Arvin Rice, of Hannibalville, gave the following account
of the first settlers and settlement of this town, as follows:
"There were three brothers by the name of Rice, who came from Wales,
in Great Britain, to this new continent, and were among the first settlers.
One made his home in Connecticut, one in Rhode Island, and the other
in New Hampshire.
"The one in Connecticut had several sons, one of whom was a soldier
in the old French and Indian wars of 1754-63, and was taken prisoner
by the Indians and kept by them several weeks.
"It was the custom of the Indians to take from their prisoners anything
of value, whether clothing or money, but Mr. Rice kept his new blanket
by sewing bits of dirty rags around the edges, and otherwise disfiguring
it, and his hat he stamped into the dirt; his money he put into his
stocking and wore it under his foot.
"He had a son named Asa, who served in the revolutionary war for three
years. He helped put the great chain across the Hudson river, at West
Point, to prevent the British from coming up in their vessels. He was
in the battle of Saratoga, in which Gen. Frazer was killed and Burgoyne
was taken prisoner. He afterwards married and had several children.
In 1792 he traded a piece of land, poor and sandy, containing four acres,
for a soldier's claim to bounty land.
"When the township of Hannibal, (now town of Oswego) was surveyed into
Military Lots, the old soldiers cast lots for them, lot number two falling
to said Rice. In September, 1797, he started with his family consisting
of himself, wife and eight children, for his new home in the woods far
to the west.
"They came up the Mohawk river in a boat, which they had to draw on
wheels from the river to Oneida Lake.
"They came on through the lake, and down the Oswego river till they
came to the Rapids.
"They here engaged a pilot (the family went on the shore afoot,) but
he, from some cause, ran the boat on a sunken rock, which stove a hole
in the bottom. The boat immediately sank, with all the goods on board.
Everything was filled and soaked with water. Beds, clothing and all
were as wet as water could make them. It was near night, and the goods
could not be got on shore, and no inhabitants near; but they found an
uninhabited hut in which they spent the night; but it was so small that
after the family lay down on the ground—for there was no floor—it
was so completely covered that the boatmen had to stand in the corners
"After a day or two they got another boat. After considerable difficulty
(such as drawing the boat around rapids and the Oswego Falls,) they
arrived at the place where Oswego City now stands. There were living
there at that time, 3 families and a few soldiers. They then went out
into the Lake, then west three miles to the place now owned by A. C.
and D. C. Mann. There they landed on the beach at 2 o'clock P. M., October
2nd, 1797. The boatmen immediately left, promising to return in three
weeks with the winter provisions.
"There they were in the woods without a friend or neighbor, with only
a pillow case, partly full of flour, very little or no meat, or other
"They were longer on the road than was expected so that their provisions
were nearly exhausted.
"However, the weather was fine and the mother with the girls, spread
their beds, bedding and clothing on the shore to dry, (for they had
had no chance of drying since their misfortune on the river) while the
father put up a tent seven feet by nine, which they had borrowed.
"Before night there came a terrible storm of wind, thunder and lightning,
and rain. The next day the father and two eldest boys aged eleven and
fourteen years, set to work to build a house seven by nine feet of such
poles as they could carry, over which they spread the tent for a roof.
It had no floor, window or door.
"Provisions soon became scarce, and the father tried his skill in fishing,
but only caught one, and that was a salmon. It was a poor time in the
year to fish; he however robbed an eagle of one, but these did not last
long. He then went to Oswego to buy provisions of the soldiers, but
there were none to be had. He finally succeeded in obtaining a barrel
of flour that had lain in the water for six days and was covered with
blue mould. It was brought home but it was so injured that it would
not rise, so they had to bake it without, but when baked and eaten it
would rise in their stomachs, and could not be kept down. Their stomachs
were not strong enough to contain it. The children would eat it then
go out and vomit it up; it was so hard that it had to be cut up with
Here the speaker was so overcome with his recollection of that time of
misery and starvation, (he being the boy eleven years old) that he could
not proceed for some minutes and there were few dry eyes in the audience.
As soon as he could command his feelings he proceeded.
"It was six weeks before the winter provisions came. In the meantime,
the mother and youngest child—then about three years old, were
taken sick, so they could not leave their beds. After lingering awhile,
the child died—died from starvation. The mother lingered till
Spring, then recovered. After six weeks, the men returned with the winter
provisions; but, having no mother's care, the children suffered nearly
as much, from eating to excess, as they had done from starvation.
"The boatmen helped build a log house, sixteen by eighteen feet, and
covered it with basswood. After it was finished, they gathered together
in the evening, and with the wine in their glasses, they named the place
The speaker here showed the same wine glass in which they drank the wine,
and the broad-axe which they used to cut the bread in starvation times,
and some other relics of that early-day.
"The next day, the boatmen left, and took with them two of the families,
who lived where the city now stands, so there was only one left. During
the winter, the boys (for the father was a feeble man,) cleared four
acres, ready for a Spring crop.
"The next building erected was a mill, which consisted of a large maple
log, set up on one end, and hollowed out like a kettle or large mortar.
The large pestle was fastened to a spring pole, and the boys would work
in the woods till eleven o'clock in the forenoon; then one of them would
go to the mill and grind (i.e. pound) corn enough for a pudding for
dinner, and a Johnny cake for supper. The father also split bass wood
logs; and laid the flat sides up for a floor, and made some other improvements
for domestic comfort, their floor previously having been the ground
carpeted with Hemlock boughs.
"In the Spring, they planted some corn, and had some other crops, but
the squirrels, raccoons, bears, and other wild game destroyed a good
share of them. The cattle which had been purchased the fall previous,
were sent on from the east, as soon as the Spring opened. They consisted
of one pair of oxen, one cow, and one yearling heifer.
"The family then thought they were quite comfortably situated. Summer
had come; others had moved into the city; they had plenty to eat, and
were getting along finely. But misfortune had not forgotten them yet.
The cattle strayed off, and could not be found.
"Finally the father hired some men and agreed to pay them twenty dollars,
to find and return them. They were gone 21 days. He then hired some
men, who built a log and brush fence from the three mile to the four
mile swamp, which enclosed between that and the lake some 3 or 400 acres.
The summer passed quite comfortably, but the days of pleasure were short.
During the fall the family were all taken sick with the lake fever except
the mother. The times looked dark and gloomy, their crops were nearly
destroyed, no hay cut for their cattle, their stock of clothing nearly
gone, the family sick, and they were about to enter upon another long
and dreary winter on the bleak shores of Lake Ontario. The mother's
clothes were worn to rags, with no change of garments, and the rest
equally destitute. Was the mother discouraged? If so she kept it to
herself and tried to cheer and comfort the rest. She emptied her feather
beds into boxes and barrels, and made new clothing and patched old with
the ticking. Trees were cut in the woods and the cattle ate and lived
on the tops-so they worried out the second winter, that of 1798. The
next spring new settlers came in and the family began to see better
times. But still they had no meetings or schools, no mills or conveniences
of grinding, sawing or manufacturing of any kind."
The speaker related a good many anecdotes of early times, gave names
and dates, and continued the history of the family till they were surrounded
with all the comforts and many of the luxuries of life. He himself never
went to school in his life till after he was 21 years of age, when he
attended two winters at the city, then village of Oswego, three miles
from home, which distance he had to travel twice a day, and break his
own road through the snow, guided only by marked trees, there being no
road cut through. During the last war with England, several of the older
boys, in fact, all who were old enough to help defend the city, volunteered
their services, and the girls cooked and baked food and gave the soldiers
as they passed by their door.
The father died in August 1823, and the mother some years previous. Their
descendants now number (counting the living and the dead), over one hundred
This article from the Oswego Commercial Times of March 19, 1859,
was supplied by Richard Palmer