The Battle of the Bouquet River
Willsboro, New York
MAY 13, 1814
By David C. Glenn
PA! PA! THE BRITCHES IS COMIN! THE BRITCHES IS COMIN!
These are the words
yelled by young Elihu Higby to his father Levi as he ran in the door
of the Higby’s Willsboro distillery on that day in 1814, to report
the sighting of British red coats advancing on the village of
Willsboro from the Bouquet River.
According to Higby family records found in the Willsboro Heritage
Society archives, the story is one of Yankee ingenuity and British
folly in the opening salvos of the British invasion coming in 1814
as part of The War of 1812. This is a twice told tale from several
sources which do not agree on many of the details. Some of the
family recollections may have grown in the retelling over the years
and perhaps been embellished to add pride to the family and show the
British as incompetent and easily taken in. After all, if you can
not make a good story even better on the retelling, what kind of a
story teller are you?
Let’s go back to the beginning. War had come to the Champlain Valley
with troop movements, fleet building, and incursions into Canada by
American troops, small skirmishes and fights over control of the
lake, all as part of the War of 1812. The years of 1813 and 1814 saw
a marked increase of activity. Thousands of American troops had
wintered over at Pike’s Cantonment just west of Plattsburgh. Both
the British and Americans were worried about control of the lake and
were starting to assemble fleets. Troop levels were increasing on
both sides of the border. Where and when would the British invade?
Tuttle’s 1909 Three Centuries in the Champlain Valley says
that on Friday May 13, 1814
flotilla, consisting of the brig Linnet, with 20 guns,
commanded by Captain Daniel Pring, six sloops and schooners and
10 row-galleys passed up the lake from Rouses Point, and in the
afternoon appeared off the village of Essex. The soldiers in one
row-galley, after giving chase to a small row boat which escaped
up the Boquet, landed on the north side of that river and
plundered a farm house.
This was a portion of
the fleet which was to meet defeat at the hands of Commodore
Macdonough and the American fleet in the
Plattsburgh on September 11th, only four months later. The Higby
history, however, has the Bouquet incursion occurring after the
Battle of Plattsburgh.
Two newspapers of the day reported on the event. The Columbian
on May 30, 1814 and the American Watchman on June 1, 1814
carried the same dispatch from Plattsburgh (Herald) date May
20th and said that
On the 14th inst.
about 2 P.M. the enemy, on their return from the mouth of Otter
Creek, sent three of their galleys up a small river, called
Boquet or Gilliland’s Creek on the west side of Lake Champlain.
The British had
attempted to get at the American fleet construction underway up the
Otter Creek in Vermont but had been repulsed by the American
batteries at the mouth of the Otter.
Watson, in his History of Essex County, written in 1869, has
the British entering the Bouquet a year earlier. He says
appeared on several occasions in the waters of Essex County, and
in the summer of 1813, entered the Boquet with two galleys and
two barges for the purpose of seizing a quantity of government
flour which had been deposited at Willsboro falls.
For a historian this
is a challenge. We can not come to agreement on the date let alone
the year or the spelling of Bouquet. Is the British incursion on the
13th or 14th of May or later in September? Is it in 1813 or 1814 and
how do you spell that rivers name? Is it Boquet or Bouquet or some
other variation? Let’s agree for the moment that it was on the 13th
of May, 1814 and we’ll use the present spelling of Bouquet. And, to
add to the fun let’s agree to tell the various versions of the story
just as they are and leave it to the reader’s imagination as to
which one is most correct.
Continuing the newspaper’s version which is “Just the facts maam”
(British) object was to carry away a quantity of flour and other
property from the mills at the falls, which are 2 miles from
the mouth of that stream. They had no sooner landed, than they
were informed that a body of militia were approaching. This
intelligence caused them to re-embark with precipitancy and
descend the river. The militia of Essex County, to about the
number of 150 had assembled four miles south of that place,
and on receiving information that the enemy’s boats had gone
up the creek, they approached it with an ardor and rapidity
of movement that could not be excelled.
The galleys had returned to within half a mile of the mouth of
the creek, when the advance of the militia opened a fire of
musketry upon them at the distance of from four to six rods
(Editors Note: A rod is 16.5 feet so they were only 65 to 100
feet away), and running from tree to tree, kept up a brisk fire
within that distance, until they arrived at the mouth of the
creek, when the main body of the militia also came up. The enemy
had other gunboats lying at the mouth of the creek.
The militia took a position behind a bank of sand that
effectually resisted the fire from the galleys at the mouth of
the creek. From these a heavy discharge of canister, grape and
round shot were now thrown without effect, the shot passing over
or lodging in the bank. The galleys descending the river used in
their defense, on this occasion, small arms only. On these a
brisk fire was kept up for about fifteen minutes, until they
were beyond the reach of musket shot.
It has not been ascertained how many of the enemy have been
killed in this affair. The cry “man the oars,” was on several
times heard from the boats, and several were observed to drop
from their seats. The rear galley was towed away in consequence,
as it is supposed, of the loss of men. Of the militia, none were
killed and but one wounded, and he by grape-shot which struck
him on the leg.
Those of the militia engaged, were at the time very much
fatigued and exhausted, having run one mile immediately
preceding the engagement, to overtake the enemy.
It is related that
Gen. Wright, of the Essex militia, ingeniously played off a finesse
on the marauders, which had the desired effect. The ammunition of
his men being nearly expended, and suspecting from a hesitation
observed in the movements of the enemy, ordered “the other battalion
to advance with the field pieces”. The galleys immediately hauled
Aaron Fairchild, Esq. residing at the mouth of the creek, was
shamefully plundered of stock, household furniture, and clothing, to
the amount of 300 dollars, a British officer being present, and
consenting to the transaction.
This account says the British heard, just as they had landed, that
the American militia were coming. They immediately got back in their
boats and headed downstream. It seems, however, that it must have
taken some time from when the British were first sighted by the
Americans for the militia to be gathered. How was that time spent?
Higby’s records have a different and much more interesting story. I
have edited the version for length but left in the salient details.
One of the principal personages in the village was Mr. Levi Higby,
whose extensive forges were at the time busy preparing anchors for
American war ships, and his distillery was doing its utmost to
supply grog enough for American soldiers and seamen.
The British squadron sailed into the mouth of the Bouquet River,
dropped anchor and lowered its galleys. These were manned with as
many seamen as they could carry, which made quite a formidable
fleet. They moved up the river as quietly and as undisturbed as they
could, but their bright uniforms and glistening guns betrayed their
Leaving their galleys below the falls, they marched into the little
village and took possession of it before the inhabitants were hardly
aware that there was a “red coat” on New York soil. One of the first
to espy the enemy was the little son of Mr. Higby, who ran into the
distillery exclaiming: Pa! Pa! The Britches is comin. The
Britches is comin. Levi Higby scanned the road leading from the
falls saw the Britches, met their commander as gracefully as
circumstances would permit, and offered to show the visitors through
his forges, where the anchors for American seamen and their fleets
were being made.
The commander accepted the invitation with gallant good nature, and
many were the jests passed between the seamen and the smiths. Higby
secretly sent word to his house to prepare as fine a spread as could
be laid on short notice, and to bring out the best liquors that his
ample store could provide. From the forges the visitors were
conducted through the distillery and were pressed to taste every
brand of spirits which the still produced.
While the distiller had been feasting the British and muddling their
brains with strong liquors, the militia had been secretly summoned
from miles up and down the settled valley.
Something aroused the suspicion of the commander. The heads and legs
of the seamen were capable only of the discretionary part of valor,
and made for their galleys amid the whizzing of musket balls. The
galleys went down the river much faster than they came up, and
consequently out stripped the body of militia, which followed them
along the banks as rapidly as possible.
By the time the galleys had nearly reached the mouth of the river,
they had put sufficient distance between them and their pursuers to
allow them to draw ashore long enough to pillage the Fairchild
homestead. (Editors note: the plundering of the Fairchild home is
also mentioned in the newspaper article and tends to link these
apparent two separate incidents as one.)
As the galleys drew up to the gun boats, and the seamen were about
to board the later, a volley of balls was aimed upon them from the
brow of the high and sheltered banks on either side. By the time
that such of the British as had not been shot were aboard the gun
boats the banks were swarming with militia men.
But the sober seamen who had remained in the harbor thought about
one broadside from each warship would make the militia scatter like
a pack of school boys. As the command was given to train the cannon
upon the landlubbers along the top of Bouquet’s banks; the mouth of
each cannon was elevated to its utmost, and the signal given to
fire. The British found their broadsides had been received by the
steep sides of the banks, without injury to anyone.
The Americans, meantime from their elevation were able to pick off
nearly every redcoat who showed his head on the gunboats below.
When the British became thoroughly convinced that there was no use
trying to reach higher than the perpendicular banks with their
cannon balls, they moved out into the lake as far as the Four
Brothers Islands where they spent the night burying their dead.
According to a 1943 letter from Frank Morse to John Noble also from
the Willsboro archives, a local historic plaque indicates 33 British
were killed or wounded in the engagement of May 13, 1814 at the
mouth of the Bouquet River and mentions the following incident
regarding Job Stafford. Morse is a grandson of Job Stafford who was
the only militia man wounded by the British. Morse writes that
Uncle Wm. took me
to the place where Grand-dad stood when the cannon ball took the
calf of his leg off. He saw the ball strike the sand ahead of
him and jumped to one side to get out of the line and the ball
hit a stump and glanced so it hit him. Grandfather was hewing
timber with his broad ax when the call came to him that the
British were coming up the river to burn the grist mill. He like
many others dropped their tools and got their flintlock muskets
and ran for the mouth of the river. They shot the British men in
their row boats and they drifted out in the lake. The sloop that
was firing at our men was anchored outside a piece.
Grandfather drew a small pension and lived with his son Wm. till
he died at the age of 88. I think he was lame and walked with a
cane and had no use for the British after they killed his calf.
Perhaps the truest
story is some of each of these tales and we most likely will never
know all the details of what really happened at THE BATTLE OF THE
BOUQUET RIVER. We do know that the British were driven off by the
heroic actions of the Essex County militia and never again
threatened Willsboro. The unsung hero may indeed be Lev I. Higby who
delayed the British, got them drunk, gave the militia time to
assemble, and thus prevented the possible looting or burning of the
village. It is certain that many of these men went north to
Plattsburgh four short months later and took part in that decisive
battle of the War of 1812 so that the British would never again
threaten Essex County, the rest of northern New York or America by a
David C. Glenn:
January 28, 2006
Lakes is grateful to David Glenn for this contribution, and thanks
Doug Harwood for the aerial photo contributions. [JPM]