Early History of Atlantic Salmon in New York

Dwight A. Webster

Professor of Fishery Science
Department of natural Resources
Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. 14853


The early abundance of Atlantic salmon in New York waters draining into eastern Lake Ontario is attested in the accounts of 17th, 18th, and early 19th century observers.  Of particular interest is the journal kept by DeWitt Clinton in 1810 during his trip by boat up the Mohawk River and down the Oswego River to inspect the route of the contemplated Erie Canal.   Illustrative excerpts from  this and other accounts are complied together with comments by the present author in the light of current knowledge.  Information concerning salmon in Lake Champlain and the Hudson River is also included.


"The narration of the previous abundance of the salmon in Lake Ontario and its tributary streams read like a romance  ... "  So wrote Hugh M. Smith for the U.S. Fish Commission in 1890 (Smith, 1892:195).  Consider the following sampling of 17th, 18th and early 19th century writings on the subject.
The Jesuit Fathers Lemercier and LaMoyne ascended the Oswego River in July 1654.  They met Oneida Indians

"with their canoes filled with fresh salmon ... one of our men caught twenty large salmon and on the way up the river our people killed thirty other salmon with spears and paddles.   There were some many of them that they were struck without difficulty" (Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1899:151).

Another early account is found in the Van der Kemp Papers and pertains to the year 1792

"Both Salmon Rivers, emptying into Lake Ontario ... and the Fish-creek in Oneyda lake are in the spring and fall [full] of Salmon.  You may form of this assertion, a pretty accurate opinion after I have informed you, that one Oneyda Indian took with his Spear 45 Salmons within an hour; another in the presence of Captain Simonds 65 during one night, and another 80" (Van Der Kemp, 1880:64).

In 1817, one Elisha Clark built a dam across the Genesee River at Rochester.  Thousands of salmon were killed by people using clubs, spears and pitchforks on the salmon that collected below the dam (Follet, 1932:367).  The following also attest the abundance of this species in the early 1800's.

"In October, 1836, two men took [on the Salmon River at Pulaski] two hundred and thirty Salmon between 8 p.m. and 12, with spears and fire-jacks, and after 12 til morning two other men in the same skiff took two hundred odd, the average weight of the entire lot weigh fourteen and three-quarters pounds. We have had fifteen hundred fresh Salmon in the fish-house at one time.  When a freshet occurred [sic] in June few would always come up, and sometimes a few  early in the spring.  Any time from June till winter when there was a freshet they were sure to come.  The principal time, however was in Fall, during September, October and November.  Twelve skiff in one night have taken an average of three hundred Salmon each" (Goode, 1884:473).

"It was nothing uncommon for teams fording the rivers and creeks at night to kill salmon with their hoofs.  An older settler living in the town of Hannibal told Mr. Ingersoll that one night while driving across Three-Mile Creek the salmon ran against his horses' feet in such large numbers that the horses took fright and plunged through the water, killing one large salmon outright and injuring two others so that they were captured.  The farmers living near the smaller creeks easily supplied their families with salmon caught by means of pitchforks" (Smith 1802:196).

"My father and Uncle Asa ... for a number of years could catch every fall from 15 to 20 barrels of salmon ...They would come up the creek sometimes as early as September and then would be very fat..  The largest that I ever saw caught in Salmon Creek weighed 42 pounds after it was dressed and was sold for &1.00 ..."(Simpson, 1949:176)

"Salmon were so abundant that men stood on a log across Salmon Creek and speared them with pitchforks in the 'fish shoal'. Women often caught a salmon with their hands or in their aprons" (Simpson, 1948:154).

"Forty years ago the salmon fisheries on this [Salmon] River brought more money to the people than all the machinery now on the river" (Written by a Mr. Cross and quoted by Goode, 1884:474).

Similar Eloquent documentation of salmon abundance on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario can be found in contemporary Canadian publications (Parsons, 1973).


The life history of the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) begins in the streamed as an egg buried under several inches of gravel. the eggs incubate there, and the fry that hatch in late winter or early spring develop until the yolk sac is absorbed. At this time the fish moves into the open water to begin feeding. After a variable length of stream life, usually one to three years, but six or more in the far northern parts of the range, the salmon assumes the silver livery of a smolt and descends to the sea, usually during early spring. The body chemistry changes, not only to accommodate the move from fresh to salt water, but also to stimulate an enormous capacity for growth. Salmon that do not move e far from the coast, return to natal rivers after one winter in the sea as "grilse", usually 3 to 6 pounds in weight. Fish that go to distant feeding grounds remain at least two winters in the sea before returning at substantially larger sizes. The homing instinct is strongly developed so that the straying is minimal and most individuals return to the same parts of the stream system in which they were born. There is one important exception to this generalized life history - salmon that complete the cycle entirely in fresh water. These are so-called "landlocked" salmon, but the term is a misnomer because nothing prevents their return to sea. Either "freshwater salmon" or "lake salmon" is a more appropriate name (Legendre, 1966).

Given this background, consider the historic association and contributions of the Atlantic salmon to New York State and neighboring areas. The species colonized fresh waters throughout its natural range but is most widespread in eastern North America. In the western Atlantic, sea salmon formerly ascended rivers to spawn from Connecticut north to Ungava Bay. Following the last glaciation, population remained in certain fresh waters, mostly lakes, southward as far as Maine, as well as up the St. Lawrence River and through Lake Ontario. These stocks represented a return to the ancient ancestral habitat since salmon originated as a freshwater species and must return there to reproduce.

Lake Ontario and certain lesser lakes tributary to the St. Lawrence River represented the most striking worldwide example of fresh water colonization by the Atlantic salmon. In New York, salmon invaded the interior waters of the Oswego River system, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida and Onondaga Lakes. From the St. Lawrence, populations became established in the Lake St. John/Saguenay River system on the north shore, and to the south sea salmon, at least, used tributaries of Lake Champlain for breeding. But our legacy in the Atlantic salmon in New York State and the Province of Ontario disappeared well over a century ago, an inevitable consequence of rapid settlement by the colonist of North America.

Records of early settlers attest to the abundance of salmon in Lake Ontario for the fish was an important item of subsistence and for export.. A complex life history pattern existed in the Oswego River system, unrivaled elsewhere in either freshwater or sea-run populations. An important, though unrecognized, historical source of information on salmon in New York is found in writings of a famous citizen of the state, De Witt Clinton. Mostly remembered as an early governor, statesman and major proponent of the Erie Canal, Clinton was also an astute naturalist. The overview on the life history of salmon in the Oswego system is based on his notes and observations in 1810 when he journeyed westward by boat from the Schenectady up the Mohawk River and down the Oswego to inspect the route of the contemplated canal. Following are excerpts from his journal (Campbell 1849:27-204), mostly in chronological order, with comments by the present author as appropriate. The principal points of interest in the Oswego drainage are noted in Figure 1 and those elsewhere in the state are shown in Figure 2.

The Clinton Canal Journal

The first journal reference to salmon (p 55) was at Rome on July 12 where the noontime repast was on a fish caught in Fish Creek. Rome was the site of historic Fort Stanwix and the divide between the Mohawk-Hudson and the Oswego-Ontario watersheds. He then noted that a salmon had been speared in Mohawk waters at Rome, having crossed the divide via the 1 3/4 artificial sluice connecting the two systems, and remarked (p 56) that

"It would not be a little singular if the Hudson would be supplied with salmon through that channel".

The reference was to the absence of the species in the Hudson River - but more on that later. The company spent the night of the 12th at Gilbert's Tavern, 6 1/2 miles by water west of Rome where the proprietor

had procured fresh salmon from Fish Creek for us, at 6d a lb. We found it excellent "(p 58).

This tavern was located near the Canada Creek, a major tributary of Wood creek flowing from the north. James Cockburn, who surveyed the tract in 1792 noted that

"The salmon comes up the Canada Creek about three miles in June; they are likewise caught in November. There was a weir formerly at the mouth of the creek where numbers were caught, it is now down" (Editor's notes in Ver der Kemp, 1880:113).

The next day, still traveling down Wood Creek, Clinton noted that salmon had been speared on a boathook by a boat passing under a bridge.

"The frequent passage of boats, and the shallowness of the waters, terrify the salmon from ascending in great numbers beyond this place (p 61).

"Fish Creek enters Wood Creek a mile from the [Oneida] lake, on the north side. It is much larger and deeper, and derives its name from from the excellent fish with which it abounds, up to the Falls, which are ten miles from its mouth. It is frequented by great numbers of salmon, and we saw Indians with the spears at work after that fish, and met two canoes going on the same business, with their pine knots and apparatus ready for the attack. The Indians have reserved the land on each side of this creek, in order the secure themselves the benefit of fishing" (p 62).

Supper that night was at Mrs. Jackson's Tavern at the eastern end of Oneida Lake near the mouth of Fish Creek.

"A number of canoes darting through the lake after fish in a dark night, with lighted flambeax of pine knots fixed on elevated iron frames, make a very picturesque and pleasant exhibition ... Here we met with an Indian canoe, filled with eels, salmon and a monstrous cat-fish ... On returning to the house, we found an excellent supper prepared; the principal dish was salmon, dressed in various ways" (p62).

Note that salmon composed three of the four main meals for these two days.

"The salmon come into this lake in May, and continue til winter.  They are said to eat nothing.  This is the season of their excellence.  They formerly sold for one shilling a piece;  now the  current price is sixpence a pound.  The salmon are annoyed by an insect called a tick, and run into the cold spring brooks for relief" (p 62-3).

The reference here may be to a copepod parasite, Salmonicola (?), but movement into cool water seems likely to have been to avoid high lake-water temperatures.  In a later account, Clinton (1822:169) clarified the matter by stating that the parasites

" ... fix on the gills and fins, and eat the latter so that the fish can hardly swim."

Clinton mentioned another tributary of the lake, Oneida Creek, entering on the southeast and used by salmon for spawning as far up as an impassable falls (Fairchild 1903:129) at Stockbridge, Canaseraga Creek formerly flowed into Oneida Lake from the south at Bridgeport and  had a run of salmon up the Chittenango branch as far as the Falls (Fairchild, 1903:129)  quoting correspondence between Van der Kemp and Clinton in 1817).  The drainage pattern of the Canaseraga was subsequently moved eastward by dredging (J. Forney, personal communication).

On July 14

"We stopped at a house at the north side of the lake, in the town of Bengal [now Vienna according to the Onondaga Historical Society] ... The family was eagerly engaged in the salmon fishing, and they told us that they sometimes caught with the seine one hundred per day; that 15 would fill a large barrel, for which they would ask twelve dollars in salt ... The salmon frequently weights twenty pound" (p66).

The party slept at Stevens' at the outlet of the lake, now Brewerton.

"Here commences Onondaga or Oneida river ... Several Onondaga Indians were here.  Numerous boats, traversing the river at night for salmon, and illuminated with fine flambeaux, made a brilliant appearance ... Black raspberries grow wild in great abundance.  They composed, with fresh salmon, the principal part of our supper" (p 67-68).

The group started the descent of the outlet on July 15 and spent the night at Three Rivers Point where the Seneca River joined the Oneida to form the Oswego.

"Two or three miles farther we passed a rapid, called Horseshoe Rapid."

Breakfast on the 16th was at the foot of the rapids

"at a fine cool brook on the north side [and] consisted of common bread, Oswego  bread and biscuit, coffee and tea, without milk, butter, perch, salmon and Oswego bass; fried pork, ham boiled pork and Bologna sausages, old and new cheese, wood-duck, teal and dipper.  Some of these may appear on paper, were procured by our guns and fishing tackle, on our descent" (p 93).

It seems tat some of the pools and jumping places at Oswego Falls may have been of some size and depth, judging from the description by Bartram (1895 [1751]:47-48)  of spears used by the Indians fishing there in 1743.

"They strike them [salmon] with long slender shafts 18 or 20 feet long, pointed at the end with iron.  The 2 splints of wood spreading each side, directs the point into the fish, which at a great depth it would otherwise be difficult to hit.  I saw upon one of their canoes in the morning a large piece of bark spread across.  On this lay gravel and sand, and on these coals and ashes, which I supposed had been a fire, and the gravel placed there to save the bark.  And I took it to be a design both to allure and see to strike the fish."

A black smith, Daniel Masters, had located at the falls in 1793 and according to Simpson (1949:159) made spear heads to kill salmon that he sold for a silver dollar each.  On July 17, in Oswego, Clinton learned that

"Salmon have been caught at Van Valkenburgh's [a tavern two miles below Oswego Falls] in every month of the year.  They sometimes weight 37 pounds.  The boats frighten them away, and as they are very shy, they are not so numerous as formerly.  In the spring of the year they are in the best order.   Big Salmon [Salmon River at Pulaski] is their favorite haunt ... The salmon pass Oswego in April, in great numbers, and are caught at that time.  In September and October, when they return to the lake, they are again caught; but at this season none are to procured" [i.e. at the mouth of the Oswego] (p78-79).

In a later publication (Clinton, 1815a:147) he remarked that the returning fish were "much reduced in size and fatness".  Inquiries made of fishermen at a later date (Smith, 1892:195) provided more explicit information about the season of migration.

"There was an advent of salmon in  the Oswego River which was called the 'June Run'.  This was usually two or three weeks earlier than the appearance of the fish in the Salmon River.  In inland lakes in which the Oswego rises [Oneida, Onondaga, and the Finger Lakes] kept that river well filled most of the time, but the Salmon River was ordinarily low when the salmon first came on the shore."

Smith's informants also stated that the salmon

"approached the shores in June and , if the water was sufficiently high, went up the streams to the head waters ... "

Numerous records indicated a second migration of  salmon, usually in September.  Returning up the Oswego, Clinton took the Seneca River westward at Three Rivers.  A mill dam had been erected at Baldwin [now Baldwinsville] and he noted that

"The apron of the dam does not appear to be calculated to promote passage of fish" (p 89).

And the locale tavern keeper

"thinks that Baldwin's dam has injured the salmon fishery" (p 93).

And again

"we were told ... that before the erection of Mynderse's and Baldwin's mill dams [both on the Seneca River], salmon was in considerable plenty, but that since they have been scarce" (p 100).

Salmon turning into the Seneca River were destined for Onondaga, Cayuga or Seneca Lakes.  Clinton, perceptive about possible consequences of blocking the movement to natal spawning grounds, brought the matter up again as he detoured through Ithaca on his return to Albany

"Salmon frequented this lake [Cayuga]  the latter end of August and continued until cold weather. Last year [1809] , since the erection of Baldwin's mill dam across the Seneca River, they did not appear until October, and then not in the usual number.  Some have always continued over the winter, and are caught by openings in the ice, with a hook and a bait of pork or white worm" (p 162).

Clinton did not mention the presence of salmon in Seneca Lake, but it can be inferred because they were reported in the Seneca River west of Cayuga Lake at Seneca Falls.  Authentic records of salmon in both Seneca and Cayuga Lakes were left by the Jesuit Fathers who traveled the area in the mid 17th century.  Salmon spawned in Catherine Creek, the inlet of Seneca Lake, and in Cayuga Inlet and Salmon Creek, tributaries of Cayuga Lake.  An Ithaca pioneer, Nehimiah Woodworth, said of the early winter in 1788

"From the inlet [of Cayuga Lake],  they also took, by spearing, large quantities of salmon of large size, which were accustomed to go up several miles from he lake" (Webster, 1958:29).

Onondaga Lake was also visited by salmon, as indicated by Father LeMoyne during his visit in 1654 (quoted by Beauchamp, 1908:44).  Additional verification lies in a colorful report by a contemporary of Clinton's Thurlow Weed who later became a printer in Syracuse.

"In the spring of 1810, with two other boys, I was walking of a pleasant evening in the vicinity of the Onondaga Creek [i.e., inlet of Onondaga Lake], a mile and a half south of he site of the present city of Syracuse ... Our attention and surprise were excited by seeing bright lights moving, as we supposed, along the banks of the creek,  On approaching, however, we discovered Onondaga Indians with pine know torches and clubs, killing salmon, whose fins and backs were seen as they were ascending the creek in shallow water over the rifts.  The Indians good naturedly lent us clubs and gave us the benefit of their torches, until each had captured a salmon, with which we departed for our homes in jubilant spirits.  Most of the inhabitants of Syracuse will find it hard to believe that salmon were ever taken south of that city"  (Beauchamp 1908:46).

In other parts of the journal Clinton did not mention salmon in Canandaigua Lake, Owasco Lake or Skaneateles Lake,  and because he did refer to fish life and good trout streams in his discourse relative to Auburn and the town of Skaneateles, we can confidently assume that salmon did not ascend to these waters.  The outlets of these of minor Finger Lakes also flowed into the Seneca River so it may be supposed that natural barriers mentioned by Clinton prevented the ascent of salmon.  Another early writer (Clark, quoted by Beauchamp, 1908:47) recounted clubbing salmon on the riffles of Skaneateles Creek, so at least they used accessible reaches of this stream for spawning.  Keuka Lake, a tributary of Seneca Lake, has an impassable cascade near its mouth.

Salmon in the New York Drainage of Lake Ontario

Given contemporary knowledge of salmon biology, the fragments of information recorded by Clinton and others provide a meaningful picture of salmon in Lake Ontario system in General and the complex Oswego drainage in particular.  They moved into this river through the spring and again in early fall, disseminating into a network of headwater tributaries.  Migrating adults intuitively made a choice at Three Rivers Point to take the Oneida River eastward to Oneida Lake or the Seneca River westward to Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.  Further Discrimination was required to reach the home lakes and individual natal spawning streams.

Distances traveled to the spawning gravels after leaving Lake Ontario were considerable - some 70 miles for the trip to the headwaters of Wood Creek at Rome or 100 miles into the inlets of Cayuga Lake at Ithaca or Seneca Lake (Catherine Creek) at Watkins Glen.  The role played by these lakes in the life history strategy of these particular races will never be known.  In Oneida Lake it is clear that salmon summered in the lake as well as in the tributaries.  That Oneida Lake was warm and pea green with algae, then as now, cannot be doubted from Clinton's description in 1810

"The waters of the lake were saturated with small dark atoms, which render them unsalubrious, and when drank, operate emetically, and produce fever" (p 64).

The two Finger Lakes, on the other hand, would have provided cold waters in which to pass the summer months.  Sea salmon are known to use lakes as well as streams in this way.

The evidence is against distinct populations of salmon with continuous residence in the interior New York lakes.  In Cayuga Lake the effect of the dam on the Seneca River at Baldwinsville was noted immediately, suggesting that young salmon produced in the tributaries of this lake returned to Lake Ontario for growth to maturity.  Populations in the interior lakes collapsed once access by fish from Lake Ontario was denied despite the fact that spawning tributaries were not cut off by dams.

In Lake Ontario, the source of salmon in the Oswego system, historical records are adequate to fix the presence of spawning fish in every major tributary except the Niagara River, i.e. at least 25 streams on the Canadian side and 15 in New York (Parsons, 1973:8).  From East to west the latter were: Chaumont River, Black River (Jefferson Co.), Stony Creek, Big Sandy Creek, Sandy Creek (Oswego Co.), Deer Creek , Salmon River (Oswego Co.), Grindstone Creek, Little Salmon River, Oswego River, Three Mile Creek, Salmon Creek, Genesee River, Sandy Creek (Orleans Co.), and Twelve Mile Creek (Figure 2).  The Salmon River, discharging at Pulaski, supported the largest run on the American side.  The Credit River, at the western end of the lake near Toronto, was the major Canadian salmon stream.

Present knowledge on homing of salmon to parent streams permits the assumption that fish migrating into these streams were discrete stocks.  Direct evidence for this in New York is scanty, but it may be indirectly inferred from the observations of an informant quoted by Goode (1884:474) who said

"There were formerly three salmon streams in this vicinity - Grindstone Creek, Deer Creek and Salmon River - and each stream had a different type of fish.  An experienced fisherman could readily tell which stream a fish was caught, though they are but four miles apart.  In Deer Creek the fish were long and slim, in Grindstone short and chubby, and in Salmon River large and heavy."

Early marking experiments, described under a later topic, also provide direct evidence.  Then there is a special case of the Niagara River.

Mystery of Niagara

The Niagara River contained the discharge of the four Great Lakes above Ontario but was not visited by salmon although by volume it dwarfed all other tributaries.  In colonial days, this aroused curiosity and controversy.  Clinton (1815b:497-500) addressed the problem in a dissertation entitled "Fishes of the Western Waters of the State of New York" (reprinted with annotated comments in Webster, 1980:10-12).  A Dr. Barton, whom Clinton quoted, had offered several possible explanations of why salmon did not ascend the Niagara that included inherent knowledge of the barrier imposed by the falls, differences in water temperature or quality and noise.  Barton favored the latter as the most probable deterrent.  Clinton took issue with all these possibilities and systematically countered each, pointing out  in conclusion that salmon migrated into streams for purposes of spawning and that the Niagara River being

"destitute of these accommodations ... the salmon does not resort to it for purpose of propagation."

Clinton was familiar with marking studies conducted in Europe suggesting that young salmon returned to the rivers of origin and he intuitively deduced the  correct reason for absence of salmon in the Niagara River.

Size of Salmon

The size of salmon in Ontario waters compared favorably with that of  sea fish. Clinton's account, already quoted, suggested that the maximum size for the Oswego River was 37 pounds and noted that 20 pounders were frequent.  In a later paper (Clinton, 1822:169) he stated of the lake salmon in general that the greatest weight  was 48 pounds.  Some years later, Atkins (1884) examined about 200 fish from the Salmon River (Oswego Co.) that ranged from 1 to 45 pounds, averaging almost 15.  These and other statistics are impressive, but not unique for freshwater stocks of Salmo salar.  Fish commonly reached 10 to 20 pounds in Sebago Lake in Maine with Maximum sizes up to 35  pounds (Kendall, 1935), 25 pounds in Vanern in the southern tip of Sweden (Runnstrom, 1940) and 22 pounds in Lake Ladoga on Russo-Finnish frontier (Berg, 1962:243)).


The origin of salmon migrating into tributaries of Lake Ontario has been pondered by most writers about salmon in this watershed.  Clinton (1822:167) considered they were resident in the lake.

"This fish, it is said, is caught all the year in the lakes [Ontario and interior New York waters]; perhaps some of them remain without ever returning to the ocean ... The received opinion is that they are naturalized to the lakes, and stay all the year."

Although DeKay (1842:242) examined specimens from Oneida Lake he was not informed on their life history and so made an erroneous intuitive deduction.

"They are occasionally found in Lake Ontario during the whole year, but as the same instinct which impels them to ascend rivers, also leads them back again to the sea ... we may presume that these are sickly or possible barren individuals."

The scarce evidence available supports Clinton's view, although this does not rule out the possibility that sea-run fish also entered the lake from the St. Lawrence.  Parsons (1973:11-12) reviewed the available literature and considered that both types were present.  A compelling argument for a freshwater resident stock was the early spring date of some runs into rivers (Huntsman, 1944:89).  It was unlikely that sea salmon could move up so quickly after the ice left the St. Lawrence and arrive in prime condition noted in the Oswego River in New York (Clinton, 1815a:147) and in the Credit River and Humber River in Canada (Fox, 1930:46; Wilmon, 1872:79).

Salmon had disappeared from Lake Ontario long before fishery science had developed to the stage where biological studies could firmly determine the relationships of various stocks of resident and or anadromous strains.  Scales obtained from two museum specimens from this water indicated a growth pattern of fish that had never been to sea (Blair, 1938).  The only marking experiment was conducted by the contemporary authority on the salmon of Lake Ontario, Samuel Wilmot, a Canadian.  He marked salmon by fin clipping in three north shore tributaries  in 1868-1871.  Most of the recoveries (summarized by Huntsman, 1944:88) were made after a time lapse of two years in the same stream where the fish had originally been marked.  The data confirmed the strong homing instinct expected of salmon and suggested alternate year spawning, but they conveyed little information about the origin of salmon in Lake Ontario since there had been little effort to examine fish captured in the St. Lawrence River.

The proximity of runs of sea salmon migrating up the St. Lawrence enhanced the possibility that some continued on to enter Lake Ontario where they may have used some tributary streams for breeding.

"At Cape Vincent they were formerly taken on the lake shore during migrations.  Never went up Chaumont Bay.  No rivers to spawn in.  Never seemed abundant in the St. Lawrence only as they passed by" (McPherson, quoted by Goode, 1884:627).

This information only places salmon in the area, but provides no clue as to their origin.  Legendre et al. (1980) express the opinion that sea salmon did not contribute to Lake Ontario stocks, suggesting that they did not ascend the St. Lawrence above Quebec City.  But Edmunds (1874:627) listed various south shore tributaries of the river in New York as having had historical spawning runs, including the Oswegatchie, Grass, Raquette, St. Regis and Chateauguay Rivers.  Fox (1930:54) mentioned a letter by one W.D. Lighthall "concerning the annual run of salmon in the Chateauguay River".  It is a curious omission that the Salmon river in Franklin County is not included in the list.

Salmon In Lake Champlain

Apparently salmon in Lake Champlain were sea fish, running the Richelieu River from he St. Lawrence and then ascending the lake tributaries for spawning.  Clinton (1822:168) wrote

"In Champlain river [presumably the outlet Richelieu, but this is only supposition and it could be Clinton's name for the Great Chazy River that flowed through the settlement of Champlain] there is no dam for seven miles, and salmon go in about the middle of April, and are god til the first of June.  The Little [Au]Sable River has plenty , and also the Great [AU]Sable, because there are no mill dams ... This fish does not ascend the Champlain lake above [i.e. south of] Ticonderoga."

He reported that a mill dam on the Saranac River at Plattsburgh had destroyed the exceptionally abundant salmon run there.   Much  of the other published information available is contained in two reports to the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries (Edmunds, 1874; Watson, 1876), that agency being interested in location obstruction on the rivers entering Lake Champlain and in documenting verbal reports of earlier abundance and habits of  the fish.  At the same time the material was compiled, salmon had been extinct in these waters for several decades.

"The progress of the salmon in their annual migration from the sea to the tributaries of the lake [Champlain] seems to have been singularly slow and methodical.  Instead of diffusing themselves at once and promiscuously through the lake, the advance from the north was apparently controlled by a system or some law of instinct.  The old fishermen all concur in the recollection that a considerable interval, varying in their statements from one week to a month, always occurred between the time of arrival of the fish in the Saranac and their appearance in AuSable ... "(Watson, 1975:538)

On the Vermont side, Otter Creek was the most southerly stream formerly visited by salmon and the Winooski, Lamoile and Missisquoi Rivers were all considered exceptionally fine salmon streams,  On the New York shore there were the Bouquet, Salmon, Saranac, and the Little and Big Chazy Rivers.  Where it runs into Lake Champlain, the latter stream [is] designated as "Salmon fishery" on a colonial map of 1779 (reproduced by Moore, 1930:18-19).  She also quoted 1791-92 account book records of a store in the settlement of Champlain where salmon were offered for barter in the months of January, March and May, and from July through November.  Some of the fish were preserved so it cannot be inferred that fresh salmon were available in January and March (specified as salted), a point bearing on whether sea for freshwater salmon were involved.  One entry showed 45 salmon accepted in lieu of a barrel of suckers and another that two barrels of salmon exchanged for one third of a cow.
Edmunds spent some time on the Richelieu River and found no serious barriers for ascending fish in 1872.  He wrote (Edmunds, 1874:626-627) the eel weirs

"would doubtless afford no serious objection to the early run of salmon, but for the late run of shad or salmon, they would prove a great barrier."

He noted that smelt moved up and down the river and concluded that if this were possible

"no serious impediments exist to the ultimate success of restocking Lake Champlain ...".

Legendre (personal communication, June 25, 1981) pointed out that there are no known historical records of salmon caught in the Richelieu River, casting doubt on whether the Champlain fish were in fact sea run.  However, apparently authentic records of salmon in the St. Lawrence River above Montreal have already been noted for the Chateauguay River and elsewhere (Parsons, 1973:6-8).
Testimonials tot he abundance of salmon in Lake Champlain rival those for Lake Ontario.  At the time Benedict Arnold was cruising the lake in 1776 with an American Flotilla, a fisherman, William Gilliland, presented him with 75 salmon in return for which he requested assistance of the ship's carpenter to repair his washed out salmon traps.  Gilliland also mentioned in a letter to the Congress in 1777 that he "had complimented the American Army with fifteen hundred salmon in one year."
Watson (1876:533) reported that

"it was a common pastime, as well as a most desirable means of obtaining food at that time, to drive a team into some of the shallow tributaries of the river, and from the wagon spear the salmon with pitchforks, and thus obtain in a few minutes all the fish needed for consumption."

He also noted that when salmon were migrating it was considered unsafe to ride a spirited horse into them and that the passage of a wagon might be impeded by the numbers of salmon in the stream.

"Mr. Fouquet, the proprietor of the Fouquet Hotel in Plattsburgh, informed me [in 1872] that his grandfather related the fact that he had seen immense schools of salmon making into the mouth of this river [Saranac] in his day, in such abundance as to completely fill the river, rendering their capture by the cart load as easy matte ... A Mr. Jones ... informed me that so plenty were the salmon in the early day that a twenty pounder could be bought for a 'plug of tobacco' " (Edmunda, 1874:624-625).

Salmon in the Hudson River

The Connecticut River was famous for salmon in colonial days, and the species even frequented the Housatonic River some 50 miles due east of the Hudson (Kendall, 1935:78).  Rumors that salmon once inhabited the Hudson stem from Hendrik Hudson's original account of 1609, where he reported seeing them off Sandy Hook in September and again as he passed upstream through the Highlands.  But Dr. Samuel Mitchill, pioneer American ichthyologist of New York City, was explicit on the subject in his "Fishes of New York" (Mitchill, 1845:435).  Salmon, he said, had never been observed there in colonial times and fish frequently encountered in commercial nets were only strays from other streams.  DeKay (1842:242) again only confused the situation by accepting the Hudson record literally, noting, in connection with one taken at Troy in 1840.

"The Sea Salmon rarely now appears on our coast, except as a straggling visitor ... Previous to the setting of so many nets along the whole course of this river, it is probable that salmon were more numerous."

Since he did not refer to Mitchill or other contemporary writers one must conclude that DeKay's information was superficial and not to be given credence when considering the question of salmon in the Hudson.
Dewitt Clinton (1815a:148-153) researched the subject of salmon in the Hudson River and after reading the Journal Of Hendrik Hudson came to the conclusion

"Hudson certainly did not intend the common salmon.  I believe, that the fish he meant, is our rock fish or streaked [striped] basse, which comes into the river about that time, in great numbers."

Clinton also quoted a "Natural History of New Netherland" written in 1655 by Adrian Van den Donk, M.D. who referred to the great abundance of water fowl and game in the area and said that

"the fishes are in the greatest plenty: streaked basse, shad, sturgeon, sea basse, black fish, herring  ..."

It perhaps significant that salmon did not appear on the list.
The Hudson River lacked the necessary spawning and nursery capacity to maintain salmon.  The first major tributary,  the Mohawk River, entering from the west above Albany, was impassable due to the 70 foot falls at Cohoes.  Upstream movement on the main stream was blocked at Hudson Falls, some 50 miles north of Albany.  Below these natural barriers the tributaries were small and usually impassable due to falls close to the Hudson. Maintaining a stock of Atlantic salmon in such a large river would require great production of young to offset the toll exacted by predators during the years of stream life, the downstream journey of the smolts to the ocean and one or more years of sea life.

An attempt to establish salmon in the Hudson was made by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 1880's, recognizing that the lack of suitable spawning grounds was the probable cause for its absence in that river (Chamey, 1887:351).  A small planting was made in the Vermont portion of the Battenkill in 1880, followed by releases of about 2 1/2 million fry in the headwater tributaries, mostly in Warren County (N.Y.).  Young salmon did well in one of these streams, Clendon Brook flowing into the Hudson from the east 5 miles north of Glen Falls.  Fred Mather, who worked for the N.Y.S. Fish Commission and was superintendent of the new fish cultural station at Cold Spring Harbor, recovered parr by angling there.  In 1888, Mather (1889:418) tracked down numerous reports of salmon from the Hudson, arriving at a total of 134.    The task of soliciting information on the catch was not easy because a law had been passed the year before making it illegal to take salmon in New York waters except by hook and line.  As salmon were mostly caught incidentally in shad nets, fishermen were suspicious about inquiries on this subject and hence the reported catch was believed conservative.  Most of the salmon recorded were from estuary waters, Gravesend and New York bays but at least 30 were captured at the dams at Mechanicville and Troy.  A dam at the latter location had been built in connection with the Erie Canal and further penetration upstream was possible only in high water.

Angling for Salmon

Clinton noted in the Canal Journal (Campbell, 1848:63) that the salmon were reported to eat nothing while in Oneida Lake.  Subsequently (Clinton, 1822:168-169) he wrote

"Salmon have been caught in the Oneida Lake, and Lake Champlain, by hook ..."

He then described what can only have been a heavy emergence of the large mayfly, Hexagenia, adding

"During this state of these insects, the salmon and other fishes fare luxuriously and disdain the hook."

An earlier traveler in 1792 had described the same phenomenon

"We had now lost a great part of two days in fishing without an adequate reward to our exertions ... but we soon discovered the cause of our failure ...The Lake was now covered with a white cloak of hundred thousands millions of insects, which we call Haft in Holland, and which lay in some part of the shore one and two inches deep.  This insect appears here annually at a stated period ..." (Van der Kemp, 1880:71)

It is singular that Clinton did not try his hand at, or at least mention, angling for salmon.  He was fond of trout fishing.  According to one of his biographers, Dorothie Bobbe (1933:67), "He fished, relishing the sport in the nearby streams of [Long Island]."  Clinton 1815a:150) shared a prevalent notion about salmon, stating that they were rarely caught except by spear or net.  A mid-19th century writer on North American angling, H.W. Herbert (1951), mentioned salmon in Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes but not in the context of sport fishing. Obviously the early settlers viewed the resource from the standpoint of  subsistence, not recreation - there were easier ways to get salmon than by hook and line.

Still it is tempting to let the mind's fancy play with the possibilities of a sport fishery on the Oswego or Salmon Rivers in those days.  Just the names of the rapids of the Oswego conjure up inviting holding pools and runs.  In his Canal Journal (p 75) Clinton listed them from Oswego Falls downstream to the mouth: Braddock's Rift, Smooth Rock Rapid, Devil's Horn, Six Mile Rift, Little Smooth Rock Rapid, Devil's Warping Bars, Devil's Horse Race and Oswego Rift.  Beauchamp (1908:48) wrote that

"At Baldwinsville the Salmon Hole in the River [Seneca] is still well known; a deep spring hole where the great fish used to lie.  On the bank nearby was a hollow log in which a lucky fisherman would place his surplus catch, for the benefit of any who came along."

Beauchamp's fisherman doubtless used a spear.

Champlain waters can boast of providing an authentic early report of sport fishing for salmon (Cometti, 1076:90). Lt. John Enys, in His Majesty's Service and quartered in Montreal, accompanied a party on an angling excursion to Lake Champlain in mid-May 1786. According to his journal they caught a few salmon in the mouth of the Chazy River, but their chief destination was the Saranac. They found a "Yankee Settlement" at the mouth, now the site of Plattsburgh.

Major Campbell took his Rod and very soon caught a fish, This was the first Salmon the people of the Settlement had seen here and they were equally [sic] astonished to find those fish in the River and to see them caught with so Slender a Rod. They wished very much to see our Baits and it was not without some difficulty we made them believe that we caught them with the flies we shewed them... We had not very good success on the first day but it improved afterwards, so that we had as many Salmon as we could wish for ourselves, gave some to the Inhabitants and brought away twenty in Pickle."

Perhaps the record on angling should end on the estoric plane, but an AuSable River account by Watson (1876:540) requires recognition.

"he saw a man sitting in a boat at the head of one of the rapids... and drawing in salmon with great rapidity; that he cast a long line and a common hook baited with a piece of pork into the rapids, and that even before the hook touched the water the fish would seize it with the eagerness that is ofter displayed by the trout."


DeWitt Clinton (1815a:152) enumberated early signs of loss of habitat for salmon and other fishes.

"The cultivation of the country has had a prodigious effect in producing this diminution... The cutting down of trees, the drying up of swamps, marshes, the ploughing of land, and the exposure of the soil to the influence of the sun, have lessened these sources of subsistence. The streams and rivers have also been diminished in size, some of them have been entirely dried up. The fountains and springs which furnished cool retreats for the deposite of their spawn, are destroyed. The alluvial deposites have also choked up their ancient places of resort, have discoloured the waters, and rendered them disagreeable and unhealthy; and they have thus been expelled from their former domains, and have been obliged to look out for other haunts, in wild and uncultivated countries."

A writer for the "New Topographical Atlas of Tompkins County, New York" had this to say of Cayuga Lake in 1956.

"many of our citizens can well remember the time, when from the waters of this lake [Cayuga], their tables were annually served that prince of fish, ... the Salmon, with flesh as red and luscious as any taken nearer tide water; but to the great disgust of many, and regret of all, these excellent fish have been shut out from this lake by the reckless manner in which its outlet has been damed [sic], and it water polluted with the vile offal from Starch, Gas and other Factories located near the stream" (Anonymous, 1866).

Salmon were essentially extirpated in Lake Champlain by the early 1800's and in Lake Ontario shortly after mid-century. The Province of Ontario attempted to reestablish runs in the 1860's, but success was limited and short lived (Parsons, 1973:18-19). By the time Edmunds 1974:628) made his survey for the U.S. Fish Commissioner in 1872, he found only a single stream in both the Ontario and Champlain watersheds that still had a salmon to report - the Salmon River below the first dam at Pulaski.

In 1891, the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, Marshall McDonald, reported to the Senate (Smith, 1892:200).

"The cause of the disappearance, practically, of salmon from the streams of the St. Lawrence Basion has been chiefly and primarily the erection of obstructions in all of the rivers, which have prevented the salmon from reaching their spawning grounds, and so natural reproduction has been absolutely inhibited."

The extent of this kind of development on tributaries of Lake Ontario may be judged from an account by Horatio Seymour (1869:27-28) in the first Report of the New York Commission of Fisheries in which he noted: eight dams across the Salmon River below the falls, the lowermost 8 1/2 feet in height; 27 dams on Big Sandy Creek, including both branches; seven dams on Little Sandy Creek; and 10 dams on the Oswego River, the first one 10 feet in height.


Anonymous, 1866. New Topographical Atlas of Tompkins County, New York. Stone & Stewart, Philadelphia.

_________ 1928. Fontispiece map. In: A Biological Survey of the Oswego River System, N.Y.S. Cons. Dept.:8

Atkins, Charles G. 1884. Notes on land-locked salmon. Trans. Am Fish-Cult. Assoc. [Trans. Am. Fish. Soc.] 13:40-54.

Bartram, John, 1895. Observations on the inhabitants, climate, soil, rivers, productions, animals, and other matters worthy of notice. Made by Mr. John Bartram in his travels from Pennsylvania to Onondaga, Oswego and the Lake Ontario, in Canada. (London, 1751; reprinted, Geneva)

Beauchamp, William M. 1908. Past and Present of Syracuse and Onondaga County, New York. S.J. Clark Publ. Co. New York.

Berg, Leo S. 1962. Freshwater fishes of the USSR and adjacent countries 1:214-248. (Translation Nat. Sci. Found., Wash., D.C.

Blair, A.A. 1938. Scales of Lake Ontario salmon indicate a land-locked form. Copeia 1938(4):206.

Bobbe, Dorothe, 1933. DeWitt Clinton. Minton, Baa;cj & Co., New York

Campbell, William W. 1849. The Life and Writings of DeWitt Clinton. Baker & Scribner, New York

Cheney, A.N. 1887. Salmon in the Hudson River. Bull. U.S. Fish Comm. 6:351-352

Clinton, DeWitt. 1815a. An introductory discourse. Trans. Literary and Philosophical Society of New York 1:21-184

_____________1815b. Some remarks on the fishes of the western waters of the State of New York (a letter to S. L. Mitchill, February 1, 1815). Trans Literary and Philosophical Society of New York 1:493-501.

_____________1822. Letters on the natural history and internal resources of the state of New York. By Hibernicus (pseud.) Privately printed by Bliss & White, New York.

Cometti, Elizabeth [Ed.]. 1976. The American Journals of Lt. John Enys. Adirondack Museum, Syracuse Univ. Press.

DeKay, J. E. 1842. Zoology of New York, Part IV. Fishes, White and Visscher, Albany.

Edmunds, M. C. 1874. Obstructions in the tributaries of Lake Champlain. Rept. U.S. Comm. Fish and Fisheries (1872-73:622-629.

Fairchild, Helen L. [Ed.]. 1903. Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 1752-1829: An Autobiography, Together With Extracts From His Correspondence. G.P. Putnam.

Follet, Richard. 1932. Salmo salar of the St. Lawrence River. Trans. Am. Fish Soc. 62:366-368.

Fox, W. Sherwood. 1930. The literature of Salmo salar in Lake Ontario and tributary streams. Trans. Royal Soc. Canada, Sect. 2, Ser. 3:45-55.

Goode, George B. 1884. The salmon - Salmo salar. In: The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, Sect. 1, Natural history of useful aquatic animals. U.S. Comm. Fish and Fisheries: 468-474.

Herbert, Henry W. 1851. Frank Forester's Fish and Fishing of the United Startes. Stringer & Townsend, New York: Supple. 3rd ed.:9.

Huntsman, A. G. 1944. Why did Ontario salmon disappear? Trans. Royal Soc. Canada, Sect. 5, Ser. 3:83-102.

Jackson, H. F. 1963. Scholar in the Wilderness, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp. Syracuse Univ. Press.

Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 1899. Travels and Exporations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France (1610-1791). Lower Canada, Iroquois: 1656-1657. Vol 43. (English trans edited by R. G. Thwaites) Burrows Bros. Co., Cleveland, Ohio.

Kendall, W. C. 1935. The fishes of New England. The salmon famile, part 2 - The salmons. Mem. Boston Soc. Hist. 9(1):66.

Legendre, Vianney. 1966. Fresh water salmon in Quebec: The game fish of the futlure. Introductiona nd Part 1, The name of the fish Bull. Tourism, Fish and Game, Aug.-Sept.:27-29.

Legendre, Vianney, J-R Mongeau, J. Leclerg and J. Brisebois. 1980. Les samonides des eaux de la plaine de Montreal. 1. Historique, 1534-1977. Rapt. Tech. 06-27. Ministrie de Loisir, de la Chasse te de la Peche, Que.

Mather, Fred. 1889. Report upon the results of salmon planting in the Hudson River. Bull. U.S. Fish Comm. 7(1887):409-424.

Mitchill, Samuel L. 1815. The fishes of New York, described and arranged. Trans. Literary and Philosophical Society of New York 1:355-492.

Moore, Emmeline. 1930. Introduction. In: A Biological Survey of the Champlain Watershed. N. Y. S. Cons. Dept.:9-21.

Parsons, J. W. 1973. History of salmon in the Great Lakes, 1850-1970. U. S. Bur. Sport Fish and Wildl., Tech. paper 69.

Runnstrom, Sven. 1940. Comparative growth of lake populations of S. salar and S. trutta in Vaner. Medd. K. Lantbruksstyrelsen Nr 18.

Seymour, Horatio 1869. The salmon. In: Rept. New York Comm. Fish. 1:25-28.

Simpson, Elizabeth M. 1949. Mexico, Mother of towns. J. W Clement Co., Buffalo.

Smith, Hugh M. 1892. Report on the fisheries of Lake Ontario. Bull, U. S. Fish Comm. 10[1890]:195-202.

VandeKime 1880. Extracts from the Van der Kemp papers from the Hudson to Lake Ontario in 1792. Buffalo Hist. Soc. 2:64, 113.

Watson, W. C. 1876. The salmon of Lake Champlain and it tributaries. Rept. U. S. Comm. Fish and Fisheries (1874-75):531-540.

Webster, Dwight A. 1958. DeWitt Clinton's "... Fishes of the western waters of the State of New York" reexamined. Fisheres 5(2):5-12.

Wilmot, Samuel. 1972. Report of S. Wilmot, Esq. on the fish breeding establishment at Newcastle, Ontario, during the season of 1871. [4th] Annual Rept. [Can] Dept. Marine Fish, 1871. Append. 1:76-85.


This article first appeared in the New York Fish and Game Journal, Vol. 29, January 1982.