We’ve mentioned Whitehall, New York, on several occasions. Located just east of the south end of Lake Champlain, the town of Whitehall has long claimed to be the “Birthplace of the U.S. Navy.” More importantly for our story, in 1823 Whitehall became the northern terminus of the Champlain Canal, connecting the Hudson River and the Erie Canal to Lake Champlain and points further north.1
Port of Entry
More importantly for our story, Whitehall served as an international port of entry for immigrants coming to New York and New England from Canada and overseas via the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain. In the early 1830s, these immigrants included Jonathan M. Clark, who came from Lower Canada in April, 1831,2 and the entire Bonniwell family, who arrived the following year.3
What did our immigrants of 1831 and ’32 see just before they stepped ashore in the United States? The hustle and bustle of a major harbor and center of commerce such as New York, Boston or Philadelphia? Er, no. Instead, this is what greeted our intrepid newcomers:
Whitehall, Lake Champlain
Milbert, Jacques Gerard, Amerique Septentrionale – Etat de New-York. N. 21, pl. 1…White Hall, Lake Champlain, Lithograph by Bichebois and Adam, Paris, 1828–1829. Yale Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection. Public Domain. Click to open larger image in new window.
This view of “White Hall, Lake Champlain” was drawn by the French artist Jacques Gerard Milbert (1766-1840) during a tour of the Hudson River area in the 1820s. Milbert published a beautifully illustrated account of his journey as Itinéraire pittoresque du fleuve Hudson [Picturesque itinerary of the Hudson River], Paris, 1828-1829. Today’s image is number 21 in the series of lithographs.
I believe the image looks south from the western shore of the Champlain Canal, just south of its junction with the Poultney River, looking toward the village of Whitehall, but I’m not sure. The geography of 1820s and ’30s Whitehall is not easily matched with modern maps and satellite photos. So if any blog readers are Whitehall or Champlain Canal aficionados, please head to the “Leave a Reply” section at the end of this post and fill me in on any important details that I have missed (or got wrong).
You can view medium-resolution scans of Milbert’s black-and-white engravings via the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Today’s higher-resolution image is one of many colored versions of Milbert’s lithographs available at the online collection of the Yale Art Gallery. If you are interested in the Hudson River valley and the surrounding mountains and towns during the 1820s and ’30s, click the links and enjoy the views. Milbert was a fine artist, and appears to have been quite smitten by the waterfalls, peaks and forests of early 19th century New York. And be sure to click on today’s image to open it at full resolution and enjoy all the details.
Welcome to America
Whitehall, New York, in the late 1820s and early ’30s may have prompted mixed reactions from newly-arrived immigrants.
For Jonathan M. Clark, who was born and raised in the isolated hamlets of northern Vermont and/or the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada, Whitehall—with its ship building activities, its nexus of trade between New York, Vermont and the Canadian provinces, and its multistory warehouses and old fortifications—may have seemed more like a bustling city than a backwater.
For the Bonniwells, newly arrived in North America from venerable Kent County, England, via the long-established New World cities of Québec and Montréal, Whitehall may have seemed pretty underwhelming.
But in any case, the Whitehall we see in today’s picture was the doorway into their new home in the United States and, eventually, Mequon, Wisconsin.
- You will not be surprised to note that the location of the “Birthplace of the U.S. Navy” is a matter of some dispute. Here’s what the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command has to say about it [bold highlights are mine]:
The Continental Congress’s resolution to procure two armed vessels, adopted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 13 October 1775, was the original legislation out of which the Continental Navy grew. Within a few days of that vote, Congress established a Naval Committee, which directed the purchasing, outfitting, manning, and operations of the first ships of the new Navy, drafted naval legislation, and prepared rules and regulations to govern the Navy’s conduct and internal administration. Philadelphia was also the port where the purchase and outfitting of the first four vessels of the Continental Navy took place.
Because the Continental Navy began in Philadelphia on 13 October 1775, the Navy claims that date as its birthday. A logical corollary would be to recognize Philadelphia as the Navy’s birthplace. The Navy, however, also honors the significant naval roles that many other towns played in the American Revolution and does not recognize any as its sole place of origin.
Several localities, in addition to Philadelphia, claim the title “birthplace of the Navy.” Machias, Maine, points to the seizing of the Royal Navy schooner Margaretta by a small sloop armed with woodsmen on 12 June 1775.
Providence, Rhode Island, asserts its title as the site of the first call for the establishment of a Navy. Beverly and Marblehead, Massachusetts, base their claim on their role in fitting out and manning the small fleet of schooners George Washington employed in the autumn and winter of 1775 to prey on enemy transports. The claim of Whitehall, New York, is based on naval and amphibious operations on Lake Champlain undertaken by the Continental Army under the command of Benedict Arnold. It should be noted that Washington’s and Arnold’s operations were manned and officered entirely under the authority of the Continental Army. There was no institutional continuity between Washington’s or of Arnold’s command and the Continental Navy, established as a separate institution by the Continental Congress. The United States Navy considers its beginnings to have been the Continental Navy, not the Continental Army.
Unquestionably the contributions of all of these as well as of other towns to the commencement of naval operations in the American Revolution deserve recognition in any naval history of our country. Perhaps it would be historically accurate to say that America’s Navy had many “birthplaces.”
Published: Mon Nov 13 07:40:30 EST 2017. Accessed Feb 10, 2022.
- After years of research and dozens (hundreds?) of failed leads and hot tips, Jonathan M. Clark’s parents, family, and place of birth still remain a mystery. To get a handle on the issues and documents, start with O!…Canada? History Mystery! No. 3. More pieces of the JMC puzzle can be found at 1857: Disaster and in the opening paragraphs of daughter Caroline’s biography, as discussed in Caroline M. (Clark) Woodward: a closer look at that 1893 biography
- Mequon’s Bonniwell family sailed from Kent County, England to the United States in 1832. After crossing the Atlantic, their ship sailed up the St. Lawrence River, paused at Québec City, and arrived at Montréal in mid-October, 1832. For more information on the Bonniwells’ 1832 migration from England to New York state—with a helpful, annotated map—see our earlier post Erie Canal – the Bonniwell Family 1832-39, and George Bonniwell’s book, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years.