Peter Hayes, curator of Constable Hall in Lewis County, and Jane Constable Rockwell, descendant of William Constable, visit Dr. Laurie Rush and Heather Wagner, members of the Fort Drum Cultural Resources staff, at LeRay Mansion on Jan. 31 to discuss a collection of documents and letters that offers glimpses into the lives of two prominent North Country figures – James LeRay and William Constable. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
Loan of historic documents adds depth
to Fort Drum Cultural Resources research
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 12, 2020) – One afternoon in late January, the Fort Drum Cultural Resources staff welcomed two special guests at LeRay Mansion for a meeting that turned into a riveting two-hour discourse on North Country history.
Visiting were Peter Hayes, curator of Constable Hall in Lewis County, and Jane Constable Rockwell, descendant of William Constable, and they brought with them a binder full of historic correspondences and paperwork.
“For a group of researchers, there’s no better conversation starter than this,” said Hayes.
Rockwell had found the collection among her father’s carefully-preserved documents that she kept after he died. She alerted the Constable Hall Association to the existence of the papers, and they have been working together ever since to assess their significance.
“So when we were looking through these papers, we happened to find these connections to the LeRay family,” Hayes said. “That’s what brought us here today and really what triggered our conversation. It’s an effort to be collaborative and bridging off of what’s in common between Constable Hall and LeRay Mansion.”
The collection is on loan to Dr. Laurie Rush, Fort Drum Cultural Resources manager, and her team for the next three months, but they wasted no time beginning their research that day. As soon as the binder was opened, everyone drew closer to it. Included are letters between James D. LeRay and William Constable Sr., both of whom are largely responsible for the settlement of the North Country in the 1800s.
Constable, aide-to-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette and prosperous New York City merchant, purchased roughly 3.8 million acres of northern New York. Although it is said he had never visited his North Country lands, his son William Constable Jr. settled in the area and built Constable Hall, where generations of this family resided.
LeRay’s father, Jacques D. LeRay de Chaumont, was a wealthy French aristocrat and ally of the American Revolution. He was friend and collaborator to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in France, and his fervent support of American independence put himself into debt and contributed to his own country going bankrupt. His son arrived in America as a refugee from France and became a citizen after marrying in 1789.
Constable sold 76,371 acres to LeRay, as evident in the land deed dated March 20, 1800. In 1805-06, LeRay settled on the north side of the Black River where he would build his mansion on what is now Fort Drum.
“LeRay and Constable would be considered friends as well as business associates,” Hayes said. “When the French Revolution began, the LeRays were looking for what options they had in America. Well, William Constable had land, and that’s really what triggered the situation with the French emigrating to Castorland (in Lewis County).”
Heather Wagner, Cultural Resources education and outreach coordinator, said that she has been investigating a thread of information about how LeRay had attempted to pay debtors in the U.S. and had Alexander Hamilton as an intermediary to settle some of Lafayette’s debt. She was curious to know if Constable had provided any assistance as well.
“That’s a good question,” Hayes replied. “They were obviously very close friends, and I know Lafayette was still very close to the family even after Constable died. When Lafayette got in trouble during the French Revolution and was in jail for a while, his American friends, which would include Constable, all tried to support him.”
Rush was delighted to note how James LeRay signed one letter from Paris, dated Dec. 11, 1793, with “Citizen of the United States” underneath his signature.
Hayes said that such a self-proclamation was practical, since American law at the time forbade foreigners from owning land in the states. He said that immigrants would have had to marry an American citizen, as LeRay had, or somehow bought the privilege of citizenship to legally own land.
The documents in the collection are written in English, French and German. Karen Koekenberg, Cultural Resources curator and a native German speaker, made some immediate translations. She found one, in particular, to be an advisory of sorts. In 1848, James LeRay’s son Vincent wrote a detailed travelogue in German to encourage people to immigrate to the states. It includes everything from the cost of travel from one location to another, where to go for lodging, and people who could provide assistance throughout the journey.
“It is especially for the people who wish to immigrate to the lands of Lewis County after arriving to New York City,” Koekenberg translated. “It reads that the wisest way to travel is by steamboat, which departs every afternoon at 5 p.m. to Albany. First you have to pay for a carriage ride, on which you can load your luggage, for 50 cents.”
She said that the cost for the steamboat ride also was 50 cents, but it was less – or free – for small children. The document also estimates the travel time from Albany to Rome, at a price of $2.44 per person, from where they could travel to New Bremen (a local village named after a German port town).
“It also states that in these lands there are hundreds of French, Swiss, German and Dutch families who have already settled here,” Koekenberg added.
“By that, he’s telling people the languages that are spoken and that there will be people who you can talk to,” Hayes said. “That would be your fear, traveling all that distance to a place where you couldn’t speak to anyone.”
Hayes said that he had heard references to such a document, but this was the first one he has seen firsthand.
The group also briefly pondered why the historical landmarks were called Constable Hall and LeRay Mansion, when neither precisely fits the definition of a hall or a mansion.
“In my lifetime and my dad’s lifetime, it has always been called Constable Hall,” Rockwell said. “But I don’t know if that is its original name.”
Hayes said that it was referred to as Constable Hall as early as the 1930s, and he thought it had been that way for a few decades before that. He said that it may have just as appropriate to have called it Constable Manor or Constable Mansion, from the architecture it was based on. While it does meet some of the requirements of a hall, not all of the architectural features conform.
Wagner said that LeRay Mansion lacks the size of a typical mansion.
“I’ve never seen a reference where LeRay actually calls it a mansion,” she said. “He always calls it the great north house or something else. It would be interesting in both cases to look through all the old letters and newspapers just to find a clue when it was known as LeRay Mansion and Constable Hall.”
Wagner agreed with Hayes that the buildings were named as such because that’s how its original owners envisioned their properties.
“I can see both parties naming those places Constable Hall and LeRay Mansion, because they really are trying to set up cornerstones for communities to start building around,” Wagner said. “And they tried to do it in an Old World sense to appeal to the European buyers they were trying to recruit.”
Hayes included in the binder some other documents with less clear context to the LeRay historical timeline, but he was sure that the Cultural Resources team would learn of their value. The challenge then would be how to use their findings to educate the public, in a way that would best resonate with people.
“I think people like the personal stories, so that LeRay is not just some historical figure but a real human being,” Wagner said. “One of my favorite letters is when LeRay writes to John Adams, expressing his sadness to learn that Abigail Adams has passed. He understands that pain because his first granddaughter had just passed and he’s trying to get his daughter through that.”
Rush and Wagner spoke about the tours they conduct and how some are tailored for different audiences. For example, a Lost History Tour appeals to community members whose families lived and worked in the villages that now serve as military training areas. Other events, like the Haunted LeRay Mansion Tour, have more entertainment value for the whole family.
“My approach to educating the public is trying to find those connections that makes them interested in history,” Wagner said. “A lot of that is bringing together interesting stories … with great historic value.”
Rush said that what the tours have really achieved is a way to give community members access to a part of their history that was previously off limits, and with that ownership comes pride.
“We’re seeing it here, because LeRay Mansion was cut off from the community for over 60 years,” Rush said. “I can remember there was a gentleman at one of our open houses – 80-plus years old from Antwerp – waiting in the parking lot at 8 a.m., an hour before we opened. He said that he had waited like 70 years to visit this house.”
Wagner said that a visit to Constable Hall – roughly an hour’s drive from Fort Drum – is worth the trip to gain a greater appreciation of North Country history and the link between Constableville and LeRay Historic District. Wagner said that the gardens at Constable Hall are impressive, and they should not be overlooked by visitors.
While research into both historic sites is sure to bring forth new findings and answer more questions, visitors are welcome to explore the histories of both LeRay Mansion and Constable Hall for themselves.
Rush said that some of the documents from the Constable-LeRay collection will be displayed for public viewing, and visitors are encouraged to ask the staff about what they have learned from it.
To learn more about LeRay Mansion or to schedule a tour, call (315) 774-3848 or go online to https://www.facebook.com/pg/FortDrumCulturalResources.
To learn more about Constable Hall, visit www.constablehall.org or call (315) 397-2323.