Upstate New York is not without it’s legendary love story.
The kids and I drove up to north Cicero last week. This part of town rings the southwestern edge of Oneida Lake. What the landscape lacks in interest (it’s very flat), the lake makes up for it with its brilliant blue water and foamy white rip tides. I grew up in this area, and frequented the lake very often with my friends. Oneida Lake and I, we go way back. It was good to see my old friend again. 🙂
As a kid, I’d heard about Frenchman’s Island and the mystery surrounding it; however I didn’t know the details of the story until now. It is such an enchanting tale that I can’t ignore repeating it here!
Frenchman’s Island is this.
It’s a small, 56 acre island in the western section of Oneida Lake. Oneida Lake is New York’s largest inland lake, sitting in the center of the state.
There’s a legend that goes back to the late 1700s. A Frenchman by the name of Desvatines supposedly fled his native country with his very young child bride. Reasons are not quite clear (this is why it’s a legend). Either they were aristocrats fleeing France’s Reign of Terror, or they left France to escape the wrath of the girl’s father. They made their way into the New York wilderness with only their stash of lovely French books and treasured silverware, settling on this tiny island in Oneida Lake. Together they cleared a small lot and built a cabin. Madame Desvatines nurtured a small and lovely garden of hyacinths and lady slippers. They planted apple trees, a large vegetable garden, and created a tiny Garden of Eden for themselves and their little family here.
They entertained visitors, including a Judge Vanderkemp from Holland, new to New York. He described the French family’s gracious hospitality and enchanting settlement as a “paradise which happiness has chosen for her residence.” Of the Frenchman, he said, “Ragged as he appeared, without a coat or hat, but his manners were those of a gentleman; his address that of one who has seen the highest circles of civilized life.” Vanderkamp feasted on a meal of a fresh catfish, warm bread, salads, and vegetables from the garden, served on a delicate cloth with chinaware and silver.
A year later, the island was sold out from underneath the Frenchman and his family. The Desvatines moved to a small town north of the lake, now known as Constantia. A European nobleman and friend from France, Duke Deroachefoucauld, had been searching for the family. He recorded that the Desvatines were a happy couple, raising their three children and “always laughing and complaining of nothing.” However the family had fallen on hard times; later they had to sell their collection of French books to Judge Vanderkemp. Before long, many more visitors from France were streaming in, but their financial situation did not recover. They disappeared from Constantia and were thought gone. But not long after their disappearance, reports were of a similar couple with the name “DeWardenou,” living on the eastern edge of Oneida Lake, near Wood Creek. They participated in the great salmon festival with the Indians there, driving the enormous fish down the creek to a trap for the Indians’ annual fish festival.
Legend holds that one day a stranger came to a little town along the creek, speaking very little English. He discovered the couple in their poor little home. His heart was filled with such joy upon seeing them that it burst and he fell dead right then. It was Madame Desvatines’ father. He had come from France to tell her that all was forgiven. On his body was a discovered a will, turning over his vast estate in France to her.
The family disappeared from records here. Some stories end with the tale that the couple traveled back to France, that they had tired of the wilderness which was starting to give way to more settlers looking for their little paradise here. Others end the story that the family moved once again, under the hospitality of a kind nobleman from the Hudson River valley area.
Alexis du Tocqueville, on his great journey across the new America, mentions looking for the couple’s old home on Frenchman’s island. He writes of his quest in his book Democracy in America. Of the journey, he wrote:
We plunge through an immense forest where the path is hardly traceable. Delicious freshness that reigns there. Sight wonderful and impossible to describe. Astonishing vegetation. Enormous trees of all species. A disorder of grasses, plants, bushes. America in all her glory, waters running on every side, huge pines uprooted by the wind, twisted among plants of every sort.
We embarked by ourselves in a little boat. With difficulty we reached the [Frenchman’s] island. Emotion we felt on setting foot there. Different look of the country we had just been through. Land gone wild again. Traces of man. We force our way through a belt of immense trees. We arrive at a clearing where trees, already big, had clearly once been cut. Some old, rotting trunks, leaning among brambles, plants and branches. In the middle of the island we find an old apple tree. Near there a vine, gone wild again, twining right up to the top of the neighboring trees like a liana. A house was there. There is no trace left of it.
We wrote our names on a plane tree. We set out again. Profound silence of the island only broken by the birds that live there free. We traversed the whole island without finding any trace of the two beings who had made it their universe. This expedition is what has most vividly interested and moved me, not only since I have been in America, but since I have been traveling.
Frenchman’s island was closed to the public for a long time, but is back open again. Of course, you need a boat to get there! There are no bathrooms, and no camping or fires are allowed. It is a completely wild area, with a few markers of civilization such as some old stonework, some trails, and a concrete lighthouse built in 1917.