Count and Madame Desvatines
Constantia, Oswego Co., NY
The attached letters
are written with permisson from the Syracuse's Herald American for
the use of the following article. Sincere appreciation to the Syracuse
Herald and Timothy D. Bunn, Deputy
Syracuse Herald American,
March 23, 1980
Syracuse Herald American
" Frenchman's Love Story "
Whatever happened to the lovers on Frenchman's Island ?
There is no wonder we know so much of the early years of this couple. Everyone who saw them on the biggest of Oneida Lake's many islands was so taken withthe beauty of the bride and the primitive surroundings of an obviously noble couple they never forgot it.
There were many variations to the story but it probably went this way. The story may be romantic but the people are certainly real.
The husband came from France ( That is how the island received its name ) and brought with hima truly child bride. Some say she was only 13 years old when they were married.
One version has it she was taken from a convent. Another has it she was from a titled family and they eloped and had to flee France. The generally accepted story, however , gives him the nobility and her the gentility. Their name was Desvatines.
They bounced around the growing city of New York for a while but the count ( let us give him the benefit of the doubt and call him that ) lost most of his money ( or was it hers ? ) and decided to move his family to the frontier.
According to some accounts, he lived part of a season with Indians at the eastern end of Oneida Lake and brought his wife and two children there. Then they canoed westward until they landed on the big island to make a new home.
Their Island Home
At the heart of the island he cleared away six acres and built a log cabin with a bark roof. It was quite small. So small, in fact, a kitchen shelter had to be built next to it.
But it was far from being a hovel in the wilds. Madam Devatines had lady slippers, hyacinths, and Sweet Williams at her doorstep. Indian corn and other vegatables were planted in front of the cabin and a young apple orchard was started in back of it.
The couple survived at least two winters on the island. A third child, a daughter named Camille, was born to them there.
They did not live a life of pure solitude. More and more pioneers were working their way west and they often stopped to rest at Frenchman's Island. Among them were people of high estate in Europe who had to see the new world.
Such a man was Judge Vanderkemp from Holland. He landed on the island one summer day about 1792 and followed the path to the cabin. He was most impressed.
So much so he decribed it as a " paradise which happiness has chosen for her residence. " He said he at once recognized the fine manners of the count, even though he was dressed in tattered clothes. " Ragged as he appeared, without a coat or hat , " wrote the judge, " his manners were those of a gentleman; his address that of one who has seen the highest circles of civalized life. "
And Vanderkemp was even more taken with Madam Desvatines who sat in the doorway nursing Camille while the other two children played at her feet. He remembered she was dressed in white and " received us with that easy politeness which well educated people seldom lose entirely, and urged us with so much grace to sit down that we could not refuse it incivility. "
The Judge Had Dinner
The Vanderkemp party did stay for dinner. Especially when the judge saw Desvatines preparing a huge catfish, a fish his honor never tired of eating. It was served with warm bread, several salads and vegetables from the garden. Even more impressive, it was served on fine cloth and good china with elegant silver.
The tiny cabin had a library of French literature, a few chairs, trunks, one table and two beds. As the Judge put it : " They lived there without servants, without neighbors and without a cow ! "
Count Desvatines may have been a squatter because about a year later the island was sold out form underneath him. Even this was no disaster for the happy couple. They moved to the north shore and were able to buy a new homestead.This was located in the brand new community of Rotterdam, now known as Constantia.
By 1795, Rotterdam had grown to a full dozen cabins and earned a visit from a European nobleman. He was Duke Deroachefoucauld, who evidently was from a region of France well known to the Desvatines. They were said to be overjoyed to see him.
The duke recorded his observations of the romantic pair. He described Desvatines as about 30 years of age, of a most happy disposition, " always laughing and complaining of nothing. " But again, his finances were a little shaky. He had to sell his library of French literature to , of all people, Judge Vanderkemp. The judge had returned to buy 1,000 acres near what is now Cleveland.
When the duke described Madam Desvatine he became almost poetic. She was then 24 and her oldest child was 10.
The Madam Made Hay
" She appears bright and intelligent, makes hay, bread and soap and does the kitchen work yet her hands are quite soft and delicate, she is lively and good, and has eyes of pecularly sweet and agreeable expression, " wrote the gallant duke.
Several other Frenchmen passed through Rotterdam and all of them were capable of passing on news from the homeland. Some versions of the Oneida Lake romance have it they learned their families forgave them.
At any rate, they disappeared from Rotterdam and never were heard of, from there , again. At the same time, however , an extremely similar couple turned up at the eastern end of Oneida and joined the community at the mouth of Wood Creek.
This is where the Desvatines lived earlier. Now they called themselves DeWardenou. They participated in the annual spring salmon festival with the Oneida Indains. For at least one season, maybe two, they helped build a barrier across the mouth of the creek, then drove the huge fish down the creek to the trap. Everyone then ate fresh salmon until not one more morsel could pass their lips.
Life wasn't all a bowl of salmon for the DeWardenous ( or Desvatines ). One of their children died and had to be buried in its cradle.
Then a stranger came to shore and asked for directions to their cabin. He greeted them both with unabounded joy, so much so his heart burst and he dropped dead at their feet.
It was the father of Madam DeWardenou ( or Desvatines). He had been searching for them for years to tell them that all was forgiven. On his body was found a will bequeathing his entire immense estate in France to her.
And so the lovers returned to the courts of Europe to live the rest of
their lives draped in ermine. The child bride no longer had to live " without
servants, without neighbors and without a cow ! "
Syracuse Herald American,
March 23, 1980