– The place where I was born turns up in the study of both American history and American literature, facts which I was barely aware of during twelve years of schooling at Oswego, NY. The story of my hometown, before and after the first British fort was erected there in 1722, includes people and events important to American independence and American literature. In fact, they are interesting enough for a young person to build a career around; they’re more than enough to keep an old man learning eagerly!
For the scope of this project, let’s declare its watershed event to be the 1534 encounter, in the valley of the upper St. Lawrence River, between native people of spoken culture and migrant people of written culture; that is the start of American history. (Earlier Spanish settlements in Florida had little bearing on colonial or revolutionary American history, nor did even earlier visits by Irish monks and by Vikings!)
In 1534, with a commission from the French king, Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence (naming the river for the saint whose feast day it was when he arrived); he mapped the river’s gulf and the two large settlements inland, and called the place the Country of the Canadas, since canada was the local word for village.
Cartier’s royal commission directed him to “discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found.” As things panned out, there was a great quantity of beavers available for immediate exploitation; the Yukon’s gold would remain hidden for centuries.
But, before the end of the 16th century, France had built such a prosperous business in the fur trade, that her ancient antagonist, her monarchial rival ten leagues off shore, would set sail for the new world. We cannot blame the French for luring the English in their wake, but, what began as yet another battle between the English and the French wound up producing the United States of America!
And the end of the beginning was the rout of the British by French troops and native Canadian allies under the command of the Marquis de Montcalm. My boyhood home stands on the site of the British headquarters; three forts were burned to the ground and 1,700 British-American soldiers were perp-walked to Montreal. King Louis XV was so delighted that he had a medal struck to commemorate the French victory at Oswego! The rather quick reversal of fortune in favor of the British inspired FDR to make a meaningful speech at the dedication of a monument there in 1913, when he was assistant secretary of the Navy.
What’s next? Background on relations between native Canadians and French trappers and Jesuits before the arrival of the English.