Nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains along the shore of Lake Champlain is the historic Town of Essex, one of the most unspoiled ensembles of Federal and Greek Revival village architecture in rural America. The hamlet of Essex, founded in the 18th century, was listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Essex has no shopping centers, fast food or franchised lodging. Essex’s quiet integrity, sense of history, intact architecture, beautiful location on Lake Champlain, antique, craft and other shops and many fine accomodations, richly reward the independent visitor seeking an alternative to over-commericalized resort communities.
In 1765, William Gilliland, an Irish soldier turned successful colonial merchant, moved his family
up the Hudson river from New York city to the wilds of northern New York, where he had purchased large tracts of land on the west shore of Lake Champlain between Split Rock and the Boquet River. Within a decade his farming communities, which included present-day Essex, were well established.
In 1777 the revolution reached Essex. The young settlement lay directly in the path of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne’s march from Canada to Saratoga. Gilliland, who sympathized with the American cause, also became involved in the bickering between Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, thus earning Arnold’s lifelong enmity.
By 1778 the settlements were in ashes. In the period of displacement following the war, Gilliland returned, now joined by a growing stream of young settlers and entrepreneurs eager to carve out new lives and fortunes on the northern frontier. Soon forest products, iron, leather and textile manufacturing, stone quarrying, ship building and lake commerce made the little harbor town of Essex prosperous – a principal port on Lake Champlain. By the early 1800’s two shipyards were flourishing near the South Bay. If the Revolution had nearly finished off Gilliland’s settlement, the War of 1812 contributed largely to its growth. At least 250 bateaux and two sloops – the Growler and the Eagle – were produced in Essex yards and used in Commodore MacDonough’s American fleet.
Before 1790 a ferry service had been established between Essex and Vermont. First driven by sail, the boats later were powered by horses on a treadmill, still later by steam. The commercial center of Essex was a natural stopping place for travelers; the first tavern was built in 1786 and was quickly followed by at least a half dozen other inns and taverns, two of which still stand on Essex’s Main Street.
The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823, connecting the northern producers to the urban markets of the south, tremendously stimulated economic growth in Essex. Shipyards hummed with activity; dozens of Essex -built canal boats joined the sloops which whitened the lake with their sails. Shipbuilding, lumbering, the mining and processing of iron, lake commerce and agriculture provided prosperity for the population of 2,351 counted in the 1850 census.
Essex’s maritime-dependent economy collapsed with the coming of the first railroads to the Champlain Valley in 1849. By 1860 the population had fallen to 1,633. It never regained its; previous level; the 1980 census showed only 880 people in the town.
With the declining population there was little demand for new housing. With the cessation of economic growth no new buildings were needed or could be afforded. For the most part what was standing in 1860 had to make do; it was used and preserved. As a result Essex today retains one of the most remarkably intact ensembles of pre-Civil War architecture in New York State.
The early nineteenth century middle class merchants, shipwrights, hotel keepers and lawyers, shoemakers and tailors of Essex were conservative, canny and fiercely individual. They tended to be conventional in their tastes, while at the same time knowledgeable and particular in the quality of their workmanship. The town they built and the structures they left behind are tangible evidence of their concern for both their private and public lives.
One of the most controversial aspects surrounding the Boquet River is the origin and spelling of its name. This ongoing dialogue has become a part of the river’s history and can, even today, evoke strong emotions among local historians. Although it appears conclusive that the river’s name can be traced to the early French explorers, there has been little agreement as to either its meaning or spelling. However, all of the preferred derivations of the name seem to have some arguable basis. Since this controversy reveals much about the river’s early history, a brief overview of the various theories are presented in subsequent paragraphs.
H.P. Smith states in his History of Essex County that the Boquet River was named by William Gilliland for the “flowers upon its banks. Others say the name came from bosquet, a thicket.”
One of our most respected local historians, Caroline Royce wrote in Bessboro:
“The Boquet River was named by the French before 1731, as is conclusively shown by maps of that date. This point has been thoroughly investigated by’ Mr. Henry Harmon Noble, who has had every opportunity’ to examine documents bearing upon the subject in the State Historian ‘5 office. In a letter written to the author, he say’s: “I find in New York Colonial MSS., Volume XC Vill,… a map dated 1732. On this map the river is put down as ‘R. Boquette, ‘showing that it was called by that name as early as 1732.”
This conclusively established the French origin of the name. Caroline Royce went on to explore whether the river was named for the shape of its banks.
As for the meaning of the name, it seems probable that it was derived from the word “boquet, “that is, a trough” from the formation of the river banks near its mouth. their [the early French explorers] eyes were quick to notice it was flowing deep and full into the lake through steep banks. There was no obstruction to the entrance of boats of large size, and their passage was clear almost to the foot of the falls. So, the French voyagers described it as the “river which is like a trough at its mouth, — Boquet, or Bauquette, afterwards written Boquette or Boquet.”
(A December 27,1900, newspaper article titled “More as to origin of name Boquet,” did not agree with this idea. The newspaper author wrote,
…true history is obscured, and irresponsible tradition takes its place the beautiful Boquet the river of flowers is transformed by a meaningless and inappropriate word into a shallow tub…. No one believes even for a moment that the poetic and chivalrous Frenchmen would consent to the slaughter of so euphonious a word as Bouquet for Boquet, no never!)
Caroline Royce also disclaimed any relationship between the river’s name and the British Colonel, Henry Bouquet. She properly noted Colonel Bouquet did not appear in America until 1756, at least 25 years after the name had appeared on French maps. It would seem any name attributed to the Colonel was because of extensive literature generated to record General Burgoyne’s selection of the rivers mouth as an assembly point for his 1777 invasion. Many of Burgoyne’s officers personally knew Colonel Bouquet, and several of them believed the river was named for this fellow Army officer. Both Royce and Henry Harmon Noble looked through Bouquet’s extant correspondence and papers and found no evidence Henry Bouquet was ever on Lake Champlain. But, the damage to historic accuracy was done. The name “Bouquet” persists today in many sources including maps and road signs.
No one fought harder to remedy the naming mistake than Koert Burnham. Koert lived his entire life in the area and his expertise on this aspect of local history was well known. He wrote a book on the French presence in the area, as well as numerous local newspapers articles concerning the misappellation of the name “Bouquet” to a river he believed to be named for another man–Charles Boquet. In a Letter to the Editor in the December 28, 1952 Valley News, Koert attributed the spelling confusion to two men bearing a similar surname. Koert traced the history of the Boquet River to the earlier presence of Charles Boquet in the middle 1600’s. Charles Boquet, was a brave man who guided missionaries to their posts and was a friend of the American Indians. Conversely, the other man, Henry Bouquet, was a Swiss mercenary, who fought the American Indians with all too much success. As examples of Henry’s character, Koert noted that the Colonel ordered 100 blood hounds from England to track down the illusive Indians, and later, carried out one of the earliest known uses of germ warfare against the tribes. Bouquet had blankets infected with smallpox, delivered to Mingoel, Delaware, and Showanoe tribes, causing many men, women, and children to die under horrible circumstances. With such tactics, Bouquet was very successful and became a household name in both the colonies and England. Thus, his reputation was well known to Burgoyne’s officers in 1777, and Koert wrote: “No wonder many of them thought the river was named after him.”
Koert penned an article dated June 24, 1983. He wrote,
Charles Boquet left a cache of food at the mouth of the river in 1666. As a result (of its subsequent loss), 60 men on this expedition starved to death during a French expedition against the Mohawks.
Boquet was guiding the French forces under Governor Remy de Courcelles. They were returning from a daring February expedition near Schenectady and depended upon the supplies left by Boquet. Advance scouts separated from the main army at Chimney Point, Vermont, and went to open their hidden cache. They found the vital supplies gone. In addition, Benjamin Sutter wrote that lay brothers Father Pierre Raffeix and Charles Boquet also lost a number of valuable personal effects along with the cache. Sixty of the soldiers, as Koert mentioned, died of hunger due to that unforeseen calamity. The final march from Chimney Point to Fort Saint Louis de Chambly was undertaken with extreme hardship. The Algonquins in the party provided just enough wild game to sustain the stronger soldiers. Their arrival at Chambly was called “lamentable disorganization” by the French.
Charles Boquet and Father Charles Albanel returned via Lake Champlain with another force, under Prouville de Tracy, that October. The Mohawks fled rather than face the French Army. Although there was no battle, a 20 year period of peace followed the incursion.
During July of the following year, Boquet and Father Thierry Beschefer led an “embassy” to Fort Orange (Albany). After the defeat in 1667 of the Mohawks, he aided Fathers Jacques Fremin and Jean Pierron in reopening the Iroquois Mission. Between 1658 and 1666, his chief employment seems to have been supervising the transportation of supplies between Jesuit residences at Quebec and Trois Rivers.
Charles Boquet is listed in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as a “donne” of the Society of Jesus, born c. 1630 and deceased some time after 1681. The editors noted little knowledge of Charles Boquet until 1857, when he began to be mentioned in Journals des Jesuites and Relations. He was “one of the best guides and interpreters on the expeditions of the Jesuits to the Iroquois country, and he was with all the major expeditions that went there.” He was described as a “courier” and “he is known by all the Indians, who esteem and fear him.” The 1681 census found him residing attlie Jesuit College in Quebec, “about 51 years old as one of the donnes.” Although history does not give us much upon which to base his biography, Boquet figured in some of the more dramatic folklore surrounding the Black Robes and their Indian converts.
One such conversion, Kateri Tekakwitha, a worldwide symbol of faith, came under the influence of Charles Boquet and several other Jesuits. After the defeat of the Mohawks, Fathers Jacques Fremin, Jacques Bruyas, Jean Pierron, and the donnes Charles Boquet and Francois Poisson came to minister to Kateri’s tribe in September 1667. Few churchmen had been to her village. Mohawk country was the least desirable and most dangerous area for the “Black Robes” because of the nearby influence of the inhabitants of Albany. Boquet and his group were so pious and impressed Kateri so much, she decided to enter the religious life herself.
Charles Boquet had the honor to play a very small part in the founding of the mission of Saint Francois Xavier. Father Pierre Raffeis invited the powerful Chief Huron (Pierre) Ton sahoten to Caughnawagahere, with Boquet as a guide. The founding of the mission at Caughnawagahere was said to spring from the Chiefs powerful faith. Following the Chief’s death in 1688, he was called “the Father of the Believers” due to his role in establishing the mission. In essence, Charles Boquet was a very admirable man and naming a river after him seems a fit monument to his lifetime of good works.