A 200 year old US warship may be buried in French Creek Bay near Clayton, New York. A cannon salvaged from the old hull of a shipwreck over a half century ago may be the link to the remains of the USS Oneida.
Americas first Warship on the Great Lakes. The Oneida a brig of 18 guns, 243 tons, 85'6" length, 8' depth of hold was launched at Oswego, March 31st 1809. Built by Henry Eckford for the US Navy, it was sold out of service May 15, 1815. It was later repurchased by the U.S. Navy. Resold to Robert Hugunin and Refitted as merchant vessel "Adjutant Clitz" in 1827. The last owner was E.G. Merrick of Clayton. Abandoned there in 1837.
Local folklore and History came together for the USS Oneida during a presentation at Great Lakes Underwater 2009, an Underwater Cultural Resource Event hosted by New York Sea Grant and the Oswego Maritime Foundation in Oswego NY March 7th 2009. One of the presentations: "The USS Oneida -200th - Anniversary of America First Warship on the Great Lakes" detailed the history of the USS Oneida that was launched on March 31st 1809 at Oswego NY. A vessel of 262 ton, it had a distinguished service during the War of 1812. As part of the presentation it was stated that historians did not believe that any remains of the Oneida still existed. In Robert Malcomson's book "Warships of the Great Lakes 1754-1834" page 142, the Oneida was listed as being sold out of US service and was "beached at Clayton New York in 1837".
At the presentation was Skip Couch a residence of Clayton New York and descendent of Connecticut shipbuilders that settled in Clayton in the early 1800's. As he listened to the talk, he realized that he may be the only living person to dive on the wreck of the Oneida.
The presentation caused Skip to remember that years ago his Uncle Bill Couch told him about a cannon from a wreck in French Creek Bay at Clayton. The Cannon had been mounted downtown through the efforts of the Clayton Fish & Rod Club in the early 1900's. Skip's Uncle also said that because it was identified as a Relic of the War of 1812 the cannon was not lost to the Scrap Iron Recovery Plan during WWII.
In the early 1970's, Tommy Turgeon, the Director of Thousand Island Ship Yard Museum, asked Skip Couch and Charlie Bender, both well known local Scuba Divers, to check on the location of the wreck that the old cannon was salvaged from, because of the marine construction taking place in the area. They found the remains of a wreck and recovered a number of artifacts for the museum including cannon balls, small pieces of iron and a bar shot. These items were transferred to the New York State Historic Site at Sackets Harbor about 1973. Charlie Bender passed away in 2006.
Stories passed down from Local Clayton residents, including Skip's ancestors, stated that "the Oneida lies in French Creek Bay next to one of its conquests". Folklore also states that in the 1820's or 1830's, a Clayton based shipping company owned by E. G. Merreck bought several vessels from someone in Oswego that had been part of the War of 1812 Fleet sold by the US government. One of these was supposed to be the Oneida and she was refitted for the timber trade and sailed out of Clayton. She was presumed to be abandoned after many years and was left to decay in French Creek Bay at the mercy of the elements and ice.
It is very unique that an iron cannon and artifacts such as cannon balls and bar shot would be on a wreck in French Creek Bay, Clayton NY. Iron could be carried in a ship for ballast and does not immediately confirm the ship's identity. Charles Trollope a member of the Ordnance Society in Great Britain reviewed photos and dimensions of the Cannon and identified it as of French design of the 1780-90s. This puts the gun in the time frame that it could have been on the Oneida. It was also common that guns produced by one country would be bought or captured and used by an other country. Robert Malcomson's book "Warships of the Great Lakes 1754-1834" page 65, list the Oneida as having 18 guns and two of them were 6 pounders.
Skip Couch, a scuba diver since the 1960's, is a founding member of the Clayton Diving Club, Site director on the NYSDA Carleton Island project, member of the Iroquise Project and co-author of the book "Divers Guide to the Upper St. Lawrence River". Skip's ancestors include Willard Cook, keeper of Rock Island Light House 1870 to 1879 and Ivan Couch, Clayton Ship builder who's St. Lawrence Skiff can be seen in the Clayton Antique Boat Museum.
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