By Paul Lear
Fort Ontario State Historic Site
Following the British victory at Oswego on May 6, 1814, the Royal Navy fleet under Commodore James Yeo controlled Lake Ontario and blockaded Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s U.S. Navy fleet in Sackets Harbor, NY.
Fortunately for the Americans, only a small amount of naval war materials was lost at Oswego. However, those cannon, ropes, rigging, munitions, and anchor cables sent upriver to safety before the Battle of Oswego, and more being transported along the Mohawk River-Oneida Lake-Oswego River route, were piling up at the Oswego Falls depot (Fulton).
Unless these naval war materials reached Sackets Harbor, four ships under construction there would not be completed, and Lake Ontario, the main theatre of action during the War of 1812, would likely be lost to the Americans for the duration of the war.
At first U.S. Navy Captain Melancthon T. Woolsey planned to haul the heavy goods by wagon to Sackets Harbor, but spring rains turned primitive interior roads into quagmires, making land transport impossible.
Woolsey, an intelligent and resourceful officer, decided to make a dash along the south shore of Lake Ontario under the cover of darkness, hoping to avoid detection by British patrols out on the lake.
On May 28, 1814, Woolsey gathered 19 flat-bottomed bateaux loaded with 34 cannon and 10 ships cables beneath Oswego Falls, then ran the rapids to Oswego, arriving at sunset.
Bateaux were flat-bottomed, lightly built open boats without decks crewed by three men with oars, a steering oar, and setting poles to push the boat when necessary; they also had a square sail and mast that could be stepped and unstepped easily.
Woolsey’s heavily laden bateaux were crewed by experienced boatmen and guarded by 114 men of Maj. Daniel Appling’s Rifle Regiment.
Woolsey waited until nightfall to leave and rendezvoused with 130 Oneida Indians he arranged to meet with at the mouth of the Big Salmon River; they followed the convoy along shore until they reached McKee’s Landing, about two miles up the Big Sandy Creek and 30 miles east of Oswego (by the Route 3 Bridge).
From the landing, the cannon and cables would be loaded onto wagons and ox carts and hauled to Sackets Harbor, 20 miles away.
During the night, rain fell heavily and one bateau became separated from the convoy; it was captured and its crew provided the British with some, but not all details of Woolsey’s operation.
The British were unaware the convoy was guarded by riflemen and that they were to be joined by Oneida warriors. Correctly suspecting his lost bateau had been discovered and his mission compromised, Woolsey stopped only briefly before pushing his 18 remaining bateaux past the Salmon River rendezvous towards the Big Sandy.
Riflemen relieved exhausted bateaux men at the oars while indefatigable Oneidas trotted along shore through brush, woods, and natural obstacles, ready to protect the bateaux and their precious cargo if the British arrived and forced them to beach.
On May 29, scouts confirmed British boats were headed for the Big Sandy; Woolsey sent for reinforcements from Sackets Harbor and the local militia. Maj. Daniel Appling deployed a hidden force of riflemen, sailors, Oneidas, bateaux men, dragoons, and two artillery pieces on both sides of the creek a half-mile downstream of McKee’s Landing where the bateaux were anchored.
The Americans rested on their arms during the night in anticipation of an attack the next morning.
At sunrise on May 30, two gunboats, three cutters, and two ships boats with about 220 Royal Navy sailors and marines on board arrived at the mouth of the Big Sandy Creek. Capt. Stephen Popham of the H.M.S. Niagara proceeded to enter the Big Sandy with his small boat flotilla — despite orders not to follow Americans up creeks because of the danger of ambush.
Boatloads of Royal Marines in bright red coats with white cross belts, and Royal Navy sailors in blue at the oars, rowed slowly up the looping and winding creek, blasting salvoes of solid shot and grape from bow and stern cannon into brush and trees along the way.
The boats rounded a bend around 10 a.m. and the British spotted the masts of Woolsey’s bateaux through the trees at anchor up ahead. Popham halted the flotilla and deployed his Royal Marines on the left bank, set sailors ashore with a small coehorn mortar on the right bank, and left his smaller boats behind with a few guards.
With the bow cannon blasting from his gunboat, Popham ordered his men to advance on the banks, straight into a carefully prepared ambush.
A group of Oneidas suddenly flushed from cover after a round of grapeshot tore up the brush around them; when his 68-pounder bow gun fouled, Popham tried to turn the gunboat around to fire its 24-pounder stern gun at the fleeing Oneida.
But, the creek was too narrow for the maneuver. At this moment, in the confusion on board the lead gunboat, Appling stood and fired his rifle to spring the ambush. Three hundred men rose from cover and fired rifles and muskets, catching the surprised British in the open; then, the Americans pressed forward and surrounded them.
In 15 minutes the British lost 17 men killed and 47 wounded; the stern gunner was hit with seven musket balls and died instantly. The British wounded were carried to the McKee and Otis houses near the landing where several more men died in the days and weeks after the battle.
Although they fought stubbornly, Popham, who was himself wounded, was forced to surrender his entire force. Some sailors and marines tried to flee through the woods and swamps, but the Oneida ran them down and killed or captured them. American casualties were light, one rifleman and one Oneida later died of wounds.
Big Sandy was a devastating defeat for the British who not only lost the battle but 220 marines and experienced sailors. Almost the entire crews of the sloops H.M.S. Montreal and Niagara were killed or captured.
A furious Commodore Yeo of the Royal Navy was forced to transfer sailors into them from the schooners Magnet and Netly, relegating the schooners to transport service.
Most of the cannon and cables brought to McKee’s Landing were transported by wagon and ox cart to Sackets Harbor, but the anchor cable for the U.S.S. Superior, weighing 9,600 pounds, 7 inches thick, and 600 feet in length, was too large and heavy for the one remaining ox cart.
About 200 men of the 55th New York State Militia Regiment were ordered to move the cable 20 miles from McKee’s Landing to Sackets Harbor. With a section of cable on the ox cart and the rest on the shoulders of the militiamen, “The Great Rope” was carried through Ellisburg and Belleville to Roberts Corners; there the men were fed and quartered in barns for the night.
As they continued their arduous journey the next day, resting every mile, civilians pitched in to relieve the weary militiamen whose individual burden is estimated at 120 pounds.
For generations men would proudly point to the permanent scars of the chafing and bruising of the rope as evidence of their participation in the great event. Excitement grew along the route as people turned out to encourage and help the cable carriers.
Finally, when “The Great Rope” reached Sackets Harbor, the cable carriers were greeted with cheers, patriotic music, and a barrel of whisky and other refreshments. The Battle of Big Sandy was one of few decisive American victories of the War of 1812, and the story of the cable carry from McKee’s Landing to Sackets Harbor is a true legend of the North Country.
By July, 1814 the Superior’s armament and rigging, and that of the three other new ships, were completed and the U.S. Navy once again ruled Lake Ontario.
Yeo’s Royal Navy fleet was bottled up in Kingston Harbor until October 1814, when the H.M.S. Lawrence, mounting 104 guns, became the only ship of the line to sail on Lake Ontario, driving Chauncey’s U.S. fleet into Sackets Harbor.
If the War of 1812 had continued into the spring of 1815, the Americans would have launched the ship of the line U.S.S. New Orleans, mounting 106 guns, and, as Oswego merchant and naval storekeeper Alvin Bronson defined it, the “War of the Shipbuilders” would have continued to escalate.