The name Francis Mallaby may not be familiar in New York history but sailing master Mallaby served at the Sackets Harbor navy yard in a prosperous time of lake shipping and community growth. He helped make a difference by initiating purchase of land which is cherished today as the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site.
This War of 1812 veteran received high compliments from Lake Ontario navy commander Isaac Chauncey and Captain Woolsey that helped influence Mallaby’s 1817 appointment as master of the first steamboat on Lake Ontario, based in Sackets Harbor in Jefferson County, NY.
Later, from February 1831 to May 1839, Mallaby’s command at the navy station paralleled the dynamic shipbuilding and lake commerce that resumed following the War of 1812. He not only witnessed this revival but also played a role in shaping the future.
What did he witness in his eight-year tenure? In early summer 1838 Mallaby could have read an account published in the New York Mirror newspaper of a “tourist” traveling on Lake Ontario from Kingston, Canada to the Niagara region. The writer included a bit about Sackets Harbor during the War of 1812, likely catching Mallaby’s attention.
The “tourist’s” article highlighted travel challenges on the lake: “All the accounts I had ever read of this Great Lake of Ontario did not prepare me for the sight of such a vast inland ocean as now presents itself to my view. We are having rather a rough time of it, and many of my fellow-passengers are in a condition unmentionable to ears polite.”
That article also described emigrants on board headed to Michigan, “the land or promise to adventurers.” These people were among hundreds headed west on lake vessels in that period.
Yet, at that time other voyagers left Sackets Harbor in quite a different direction. In an 1836 letter, Jonas Humphries warmly addressed local citizen George Camp as “dear brother,” thanking Camp for supporting the Humphries family emigration to Bassa Cove Liberia on Africa’s west coast. The American Colonization Society’s supporters encouraged a colony in Africa for free African Americans. Mallaby, in his position commanding the Sackets Harbor navy yard, likely knew of local abolitionists such as the Camp family.
Nevertheless, Mallaby focused his efforts on securing a navy stronghold in the community realizing the continued strategic importance on Lake Ontario opposite Canada. Indeed, Mallaby understood a permanent navy presence in the village would complement the army post Madison Barracks.
Possibly one convincing incident happened in November 1838, an invasion into Canada on the St. Lawrence River US-Canadian border. Proponents of the “Patriot War” and local defenders clashed at Prescott as the aggressors attempted to overthrow the Canadian government. Sadly, most of the raiders in this movement were young, unskilled American laborers from Jefferson County. Prior to the attack, around 500 rallied in Sackets Harbor for departure by ships. Army personnel at Madison Barracks were aware of the build-up. Mallaby surely witnessed preparations unfolding for this cross-border crisis.
By late summer 1838 Mallaby had already penned a letter to officials in Washington, DC suggesting the government acquire property once owned by the famous War of 1812 ship builder Henry Eckford (for whom the Adirondack Eckford Chain is named). This included Navy Point, Fort Tompkins and the ship house covering the unfinished vessel USS New Orleans. Mallaby noted the value of the land estimated at $3,000.
Fortunately, the government purchased, and therefore secured, what eventually became the Sackets Harbor Battlefield historic site where the War of 1812 defenses Fort Tompkins once stood. Mallaby certainly participated in Sackets Harbor’s story, helping make history happen.
Illustration: 1835 painting of ship house covering unfinished War of 1812 USS New Orleans located on Navy Point at Sackets Harbor.