Flying Visits

Some people of note have gone through Skaneateles quickly, qualifying as visitors while the coach horses were changed.

Martin Van Buren passed through Skaneateles on September 30, 1834, while Vice President (before his Presidential term of 1837-41). “It was quite an event,” wrote the Rev. William M. Beauchamp, in his “Notes of Other Days” (1914) but it didn’t leave much of a trace, as Beauchamp’s account is the only one I can find.

Although he didn’t stay long, Van Buren was an interesting passerby, the first U.S. President to be born an American citizen, his predecessors having all been born as British subjects, before the American Revolution. Van Buren was also the only President not to have spoken English as his first language, having grown up speaking Dutch.

Four years later, New York Governor William Learned Marcy passed through Skaneateles on January 18, 1838, on his way to Buffalo where the burning of the American steamer Caroline by British troops threatened to ignite a border war.

The incident occurred when an overly ambitious William Lyon MacKenzie sought to drive the British from Canada. His rebels lost a skirmish in Toronto and retreated to Grand Island, in the middle of the Niagara River. MacKenzie named Rensselaer Van Rensselaer as his general, and as generals do, Van Rensselaer invaded Canada’s Navy Island in December of 1837. His small army set up some cannons (borrowed from the State of New York) and began firing upon the Canadian mainland, an unwelcome act that actually killed someone and irritated the British. To supply their army of occupation, the rebels hired a little steamer named the Caroline to ferry goods and volunteers over from the American shore. After a couple of trips, the boat was tied up on the American side for the night.

Under the cover of darkness, several boatloads of British troops crossed the river (and the border), seized the Caroline, towed her out into the Niagara River and sent her blazing down the rapids toward Niagara Falls. Seems only fair, but an American was killed during the skirmish, turning a farce into an international incident.

In short, British armed forces had invaded American waters, killed an American citizen and destroyed an American vessel. But the American citizen and vessel were aiding an armed invasion of Canada, which was British territory. A war with England was on the verge of starting in Buffalo.

Hence Governor Marcy’s flying visit. In the end, cooler heads prevailed. Governor Marcy went back to Albany, and in the future served as the U.S. Secretary of War. Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks, is named in his honor.


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