The Town of Cape Vincent is located at the eastern extreme of the Great Lakes system where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River. It has a unique setting whereby its water resources made early travel and commerce possible westward well beyond the center of the continent and eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. The relative ease of water travel allowed early French explorers, traders and missionaries to extend their presence while early British-English settlers were establishing their colonies along the Atlantic coast. Indigenous native cultures predated these Europeans by thousands of years, though the Cape Vincent area was used by them mainly on a seasonal basis.
Just downriver from the current location of the Village of Cape Vincent are two islands which would eventually become part of the Cape Vincent township. The larger of these islands, Carleton was important in colonial history, as the British military maintained a presence there from the mid-1770's until after the War of 1812. The British navy found Carleton Island to be strategically significant due to location at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, its deep harbor, elevated interior and easily accessible stands of hardwood trees. In 1778, the British built Fort Haldimand, the remnants of which together with the surrounding acreage are today owned and conserved by The Thousand Island Land Trust.
Beginning in the 1770's, early settlers moving west from New England sought environments which were rich in game, timber for homes, mills and shipbuilding , land suitable for farming, and rivers and lakes which facilitated communication, commerce, and defense. In 1788 land speculators Alexander Macomb and William Constable purchased five massive land tracts from the State of New York. Soon after the acquisition, Macomb went bankrupt and his interests were assumed by James LeRay de Chaumont. The LeRay family contributed some of their personal assets to the financing of the American Revolutionary War and assisted Benjamin Franklin in soliciting financial support from the King of France. After independence of the colonies hadbeen won Jacques LeRay de Chaumont purchased and settled some 800,000 acres in Northern New York. The tract of land extends from what is today Fort Drum where their home was sited, to Alexandria Bay named for Alexander LeRay, to Cape Vincent and including Chaumont, named for the family home in France, to Lake Ontario and back to Fort Drum.
The involvement of LeRay, a Frenchman with U.S. citizenship, attracted a number of his wealthy, aristocratic countryman who sought to flee the French Revolution. These French expatriates, some associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, found the largely unsettled lands owned by LeRay to be particularly suitable for relocation away from the strife which plagued France at the end of the 18th century. Émigrés from his homeland included Comte Pierre Francois Real, a member of the Council of State, Field Marshall Grouchy, and General Rolland, all of whom conspired to free Napoleon from exile on St. Helena Island and bring him to this new locale. Unfortunately for him, Napoleon died on St. Helena before these sympathizers could act on his release.
The first organized settlement of what would become the village of Cape Vincent was commissioned by LeRay in 1809 and named after his son Vincent. He had a mile square surveyed for the Village of Cape Vincent, and thereafter the U.S. Congress in March 1815 directed that Carleton, Linda, Grenadier and Fox Islands were to become part of Cape Vincent. The proximity of the Cape Vincent to Kingston, Ontario, Canada and the fact that the River could be crossed by ferry as well as across the ice in winter rendered it a choice location for a commercial town. A ferry service was established as early as 1807 between Cape Vincent and Wolfe Island, Canada. The initial development of the Village began with the waterfront area being cleared and a wharf, blockhouse, tavern and barn erected. A residence and store were constructed that same year by Richard Esselstyn. A lumbering business was Esselstyne's next venture, which proved hugely successful.
Cape Vincent developed rapidly during the early 1800's when the State road was extended from Brownville to Cape Vincent. The Town was officially established in 1849 with 3,044 inhabitants, separated at the time from the Town of Lyme. Four years later in 1853 the Village of Cape Vincent was incorporated with a population of 1,218. Throughout the remainder of the 19th century the town's population remained fairly constant and unchanged; it averaged approximately 3,300 people.
The building of homes, grain-mills, cheese plants proceeded with the expansion of farmed lands throughout the Town of Cape Vincent through the early to mid-1800's. A momentous, economic expansion came with the completion of the Cape Vincent and Rome Railroad in 1852. The advent of rail transportation meant that passengers and goods could flow to and from all regions of the East Coast to the Cape Vincent. Additionally, the ferry service furthered such travel to Kingston, Ontario Canada. The combined rail and water transportation network heralded a boom in local business growth.
For the most part, however, Cape Vincent during the 19th Century remained predominantly an agricultural community during the 19th century. Farming, particularly dairy farming, was always a big part of Cape Vincent's economy. In the latter part of the 19th Century that focus began to shift. As early as 1880, the "Thousand Islands" were publicized opening a new era that catered to well-to-do summer vacationers: "In Cape Vincent may be found the best small mouth bass fishing among the Thousand Islands--here the surroundings are picturesque, the climate is mild and healthful."
Around 1900 Cape Vincent's local business community was at its height. There were seven grocery stores, three meat markets, a bakery, two drug stores, a book store and five hotels. The hotels were testimony to how important the tourism industry had grown and prospered. Occupations were as diverse as the businesses. There were five physicians, two lawyers, two undertakers, a dress maker, hay dealer, and a number of blacksmiths. At the same time, agriculture remained a mainstay of the community. For example, in the 1918 Town of Cape Vincent Farm Index map there were more than sixty individual farms, and four other farms on Grenadier and Carleton Islands as well as several cheese factories.
The railroad brought tourists, sportsmen and vacationers seeking to leave the cities of New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D. C. in the heat of summer. Whether it was game, fish, a rural quaintness, or scenic vistas and mild weather, the visitors came and the Town and Village prospered. Over time, and to the present day, property along the Lake and River shoreline became a desirable commodity. Lake-side homes and campgrounds had 150 miles of open Lake Ontario water as their view-scape. Currently, summer residents quadruple the number of Town inhabitants.
At the turn of the 20th century Cape Vincent's path to the future had been set, a community whose economic vitality was dependent on both tourism and agriculture. The balance between these two, however, changed throughout this period. The small, family farms that graced the Town in 1918 were nearly all gone by the close of the century and the farms that remained were larger, fewer, more productive and more efficient. Likewise, the numerous hotels that catered to wealthy summer tourists coming from cities via the Cape Vincent railroad gave way to the breakup and sale of waterfront land for cottage sites and a new wave of middle-class summer residents. Regardless, Cape Vincent maintained its small-town atmosphere with world-class scenic and historical assets along with its agricultural and tourism roots. These very qualities were not only important historically to the Cape's development, but will also provide the foundation for Cape Vincent's future growth and its attraction as, "...a small-town, rural community with unique scenic, historical and natural resources.