Re-telling a Local Legend…

Fort Ontario State Historic Site
Oswego, N.Y.
When last we gathered, walking through the parade grounds of Fort Ontario State Historic Site, we remembered the bicentennial of the Battle of Oswego, which saw the loss of the fort to British forces. Before the battle, American troops were able to hide or remove a store of naval supplies, the real prize of the battle. What transpired next is the making of a true local legend.
A Most Important Mission

Two years in, the War of 1812 had become a shipbuilding race with both British and American forces vying for control of Lake Ontario. Cannon, ropes, rigging, munitions, and anchor cables were saved by American troops in the Battle of Oswego; however, unless these naval materials reached the U.S. Navy shipyard at Sackets Harbor, N.Y., the four ships under construction there would likely not be finished, and the British would win control of Lake Ontario, the main theatre of action in the war.

On May 28, 1814, 19 flat-bottomed bateaux left Oswego Falls, now known as Fulton, rode the Oswego River to the port city and headed out along the lakeshore in the cover of darkness to avoid detection by British patrols. During the night, heavy rain separated one bateau from the party and it was captured by the enemy. Upon learning of the mission from its crew, the British gave chase to the remainder of the convoy.
Meanwhile, the flotilla, which had intended to rendezvous with 130 Oneida Indians at the mouth of the Salmon River, realized it had lost a bateau and feared the mission was compromised. They changed course and pushed on toward Big Sandy Creek instead, where they received confirmation that British boats were indeed in pursuit. Reinforcements were called in to aid the Americans and Oneidas in defense of the convoy and its precious cargo.
The Battle of Big Sandy

At sunrise on May 30, 1814, the British arrived at the mouth of Big Sandy Creek. Despite orders not to enter the waterway for fear of an ambush, the troops rowed up the winding creek, blasting into trees and brush along the way. At 10 a.m., the party rounded a bend and spotted the American flotilla at anchor. The order was given to advance on the banks, where a carefully prepared ambush awaited British troops.

Three hundred American riflemen, Oneida warriors and local militiamen rose from cover, firing rifles and muskets, catching the surprised enemy in the open and pressing forward to surround them. In 15 minutes, the British lost 17 men and had another 47 wounded, some of whom died in the days and weeks following the battle. American casualties were light comparatively; one rifleman and one Oneida Indian were lost. The Battle of Big Sandy was a devastating defeat for the British as they not only lost the battle, but 220 marines and experienced sailors who were either killed or captured.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site Superintendent Paul Lear (left) traveled up Big Sandy Creek to join in the Henderson Historical Society’s bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of Big Sandy and the Great Cable Carry. Pictured with him are Peter Sterbak (middle) of Fort Ontario and Chris Rotunno (right) of the Oswego Yacht Club. Photo courtesy of Sandy Creek Town Historian Charlene Cole.
A Local Legend: The Great Cable Carry

After the battle, the Americans returned to their mission. With British naval forces now alerted, the decision was made to complete the journey by land. Most of the cannon and cables were transported by wagon and ox carts to Sackets Harbor; however, the anchor cable for the U.S.S. Superior, weighing 9,600 lbs. and measuring 7” thick and 600’ long, was too large and heavy for the one remaining ox cart.

About 200 men of the 55th New York State Militia Regiment were then ordered to move the cable to Sackets Harbor. With one section on the ox cart and the rest on their shoulders, “The Great Rope” was carried the remaining 20 miles of the expedition.
The serpentine line of cable carriers passed from village to village during the arduous journey. It took two days, with the men resting every mile and civilians pitching in to relieve them. Mats of woven grass were fashioned to protect their shoulders, but still many were left with large bruises. Excitement grew along the route as people turned out to encourage and help the men. Finally, when “The Great Rope” reached Sackets Harbor, the cable carriers were greeted with cheers, patriotic music, whiskey and other refreshments.
Former Fort Ontario State Historic Site and AmeriCorps volunteer Ian Mumpton demonstrates the Great Cable Carry of 1814. The original anchor cable would have been four times as thick and heavy as the one pictured here.
In The End

Just two months later, the U.S.S. Superior and three other ships were completed and the U.S. Navy once again ruled Lake Ontario. If the War of 1812 had continued into the spring of 1815, the Americans would have launched the U.S.S. New Orleans and the “War of Shipbuilders” would have continued to escalate.

The Battle of Big Sandy was one of few decisive American victories of the War of 1812, and the story of “The Great Rope” or “The Great Cable Carry” is a true legend of the North Country. The individual burden of the cable was estimated at 120 pounds, and it is said that some of the men walked with a limp the rest of their lives and many more proudly pointed out their permanent callouses or scars as evidence of their participation in the great event.
And Now…

Bring the whole family to Fort Ontario State Historic Site, 1 E. Fourth St., Oswego, for the one-and-only performance of “The Great Rope” at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 2. Originally written and performed around 1976, Rosemary Nesbitt’s award-winning children’s play tells the story of the huge anchor cable being carried from Big Sandy Creek to Sackets Harbor.

Cast, crew and sponsors of “The Great Rope” hoist a replica of the anchor cable featured in the story. The model wascrafted by Mary Kay Stone, production manager of the play. Photo courtesy of Jen Marriner Photography.
Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for teens and free for those aged 12 and younger. Advance tickets can be purchased at Fort Ontario State Historic Site, E. Fourth St., Oswego; H. Lee White Marine Museum, West First Street Pier, Oswego; Arts in the HeART Gallery, S. First St., Fulton; river’s end bookstore, W. Bridge St., Oswego; and Man in the Moon Candies, W. First St., Oswego.
Audience members are encouraged to bring lawn chairs or blankets to watch the performance on the parade grounds of the fort. In the event of rain, the show will be re-scheduled to Sunday, Aug. 3.
For more information, call Fort Ontario State Historic Site at (315) 343-4711 or visit,www.hleewhitemarinemuseum.comor
Here are some previews from play rehearsal:
For more information about Oswego County’s fascinating heritage and events, visit our Web site at