Accidental Voyage, Salmon Swetland’s Lake Erie Odyssey

by Kathy Warnes

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The wind- whipped Lake Erie waves battered his log canoe, making it necessary for Salmon Swetland to balance in the middle, moving his paddle from side to side in rhythm with the movements of the roiling Lake Erie waves.

The spelling of Salmon’s last name is as individual as the Lake Erie waves that carried him to Long Point, Canada.  Some accounts spell it Swetland, some Sweetland, and other Sweatland. This account will feature the Swetland version that also appears on his and his wife Betsey’s tombstones.

On this day in the early September of 1817, Salmon Peter Swetland appreciated his life, especially his hunting. The son of Peter Salmon and Anna Swetland, he had greeted the world on September 4, 1792, in Dalton, Massachusetts. Immigrating to Conneaut, Ohio, before his 30th birthday, he settled on the Lake Erie shore a short distance below the mouth of Conneaut Creek. By 1817, he had enjoyed a little over a year of married life with Betsey Talbut (Talcott) Swetland. They had married on July 4, 1816, in Ashtabula and settled down in their home cabin near the mouth of Conneaut Creek.

Their July 41816 wedding date, their home by Conneaut Creek, hunting, and geography were a few of the links connected to the grand adventure of Salmon Swetland’s life that would take place in a future September, September 1817.  British soldiers and Canadian citizens also played an important part in Salmon’s adventure.

The British Invade Conneaut

On August 11, 1812, four years before Salmon’s marriage, the villagers of Conneaut had mobilized when they thought that the British were invading Conneaut. The War of 1812 was two months old. Native Americans who had previously been friendly to the settlers traveled to fight with the British; and men from the community had been enlisted or drafted to fight the Native Americans in western Ohio. Women kept the home fires burning and Revolutionary War veterans formed vigilance committees to scout for British soldiers and create battle plans for fighting them.

In his 1878 History of Ashtabula County, William W. Williams described what happened when sentinels reported that British ships had been sighted at the mouth of Conneaut Creek. One of the sentinels fired his musket toward the ships and then tossed the musket on the beach. He jumped on his horse and headed toward Conneaut to warn its citizens, shouting “Turn out! Save your lives! The British and the Indians are landing, and will be upon us in 15 minutes!”  Revolutionary War Veterans perhaps remembered the rallying cry of “To arms, to arms, the British are coming!” as they fled.

Citizens onshore were certain that the British were preparing to invade Conneaut and conquer to Cleveland and beyond. Quickly most of the population of Conneaut fled, one family leaving so quickly that they left a child asleep in their house. Others left doors hanging open, and dinners on the table, they were in such a hurry to reach Fort Hill, south of Conneaut. Fort Hill, washed by the waters of Conneaut Creek, originated as a burial mound of the mound builder people and could only be approached by climbing a steep hill. An article in the Conneaut Public Library dated July, 1871 and appearing in “Dock Talk,” described Fort Hill as featuring a triangular-shaped wall about five feet high enclosing about two acres of level land on top of the hill. A lookout stood on the opposite bank of Conneaut Creek where it turns northward.

In order to reach Fort Hill, fleeing Conneaut citizens had to ford Conneaut Creek and the men carried the women and small children on their shoulders. One husband nearly drowned his wife and himself when he slipped and they both went under the water. The refuges spent the night on Fort Hill, huddled in the presumed safety of its walls.

People who lived on Conneaut’s east side fled to a hemlock grove on Smoke Run, a Conneaut Creek tributary. Since the hemlock grove was located very near the road, the adults feared that marching soldiers would be alerted by the cries of terrified children and they faced the challenge of keeping the children quiet. They managed to quiet the children, but one family dog persisted in barking his opinion of the entire situation. The frantic fugitives decided to quiet the dog so that its barking wouldn’t alert the British and Indians. Someone bent a sapling, wrapped an elastic cord from an article of lady’s clothing around the dog’s throat, and the barking was silenced forever. The next morning, Conneaut residents returned to their homes and found things just as they had left them the night before. No one had invaded and plundered their property and no British or Indians lurked behind trees. They had fled their homes and sacrificed the dog for a false alarm.

The Boats Belonged to Captain Dobbins

But who, they wondered as they wended their weary ways home, owned the boats that the sentinel had fired upon and what were they doing at Conneaut Creek? Eventually, Conneaut citizens learned that the boats belonged to Captain Daniel  Dobbins of Erie, Pennsylvania. According to a biography by Samuel P. Bates in the History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, Captain Dobbins was sailing the schooner Salina in the summer of 1812 and he had planned to put several families ashore at Conneaut. When he discovered the uproar he and his ships had created in Conneaut, he turned the ship away and continued his voyage, but the townspeople still remained in a state of mass hysteria overnight. Five years later, Salmon would voyage near Captain Dobbins’ Erie, Pennsylvania homeport in equally alarming circumstances.

In the five years since the British scare, Salmon and Betsey had both worked hard at the tasks of pioneer living.

Salmon Goes Deer Hunting

Being a young and active man, Salmon participated in hunting both for adventure and occasional profit. A popular method of capturing deer at time involved chasing them with hounds and driving them into the lake, because every hunter knew that deer take to the water when pursued. His neighbor Mr. Cozens (Couzzins or Cousins, depending om the account), owned a pack of hounds and he and Salmon worked out a plan to capture deer. Mr. Cozens would go into the woods and start the dogs on the scent, while Salmon prepared his canoe to pursue and capture the deer as soon as it hit the water. Salmon kept his canoe in readiness at the mouth of Conneaut Creek near his cabin.

Conneaut pioneer school teacher and historian, Harvey Nettleton, wrote a version of the story of what happened during one of Salmon and Mr. Cozens’ hunting trips for The Geneva Times newspaper in 1844-1845. This version of the story, the one that appeared in the Williams Brothers History of Ashtabula County, says that on a September morning in 1817, Salmon Swetland woke up as the first light of dawn filtered into his Conneaut Creek cabin prepared to go hunting. Eager to enter the chase, he didn’t take the time to put on his coat or waistcoat, but did pause to pull on his shoes.

Quickly, Salmon left his cabin, and with the sound of the hounds baying sweet music in his ears, he hurried down the path to the beach. He immediately discovered that the stag (according to Harriet Upton in Volume I of History of the Western Reserve the deer was a stag), a sturdy and vigorous specimen, had already swum some distance from the Lake Erie shore. Harvey Nettleton says that Salomon threw his hat on the beach “in his excitement, “pushed his canoe into the water, and shoved off from shore to pursue the stag in his dugout canoe with one paddle.

The account of Salmon Swetland’s Lake Erie adventure in Mansfield’s History of the Great Lakes described his canoe as “dug from a large white-wood log for a fishing boat,” measuring about fourteen feet long and proportionately wide. Henry Howe in his Historical Collections of Ohio named Major James Brookes as the person who created the dugout. Fortunately for Salmon, the mariners who ranked his canoe as a superior performer were correct.

Salmon Stalks A Stag in His Canoe

The stag that Salmon had followed into the Lake swam slightly ahead of him, its tail waving a challenge. Never taking his eyes from the deer, Salmon kept following, propelled by the strong wind at his back and inspired by the rifle at his side. The thought of the venison meal his wife Betsey would cook made him paddle even faster.

Paddling furiously, Salmon concentrated so intently on catching the stag that he paid little attention to the south wind which had increased to nearly gale force. He finally caught up with the stag, but by now the wind and waves had created a fierce Lake Erie storm. The stag, who seemed to recognize the danger better than Salmon, shot past him and turned toward the shore. Salmon tacked his flimsy canoe and tried to follow the stag, but he made no progress toward land.

For a time, the wind and waves caused him to paddle in place. Some accounts state that he could see the outlines of his cabin and the concerned people on the shore, including his wife. Vainly, he tried to paddle his way back to them, but instead, he drifted further out into the lake. Salmon unsuccessfully tried to signal two passing schooners. He watched his world appear to sink below the waves, wondering if he would ever touch land or see his wife again.

In the meantime, Mr. Cozens and Salmon’s family had watched the deer drama unfolding far out into the lake, and they were terrified when Salmon disappeared from sight. They spread the alarm throughout the neighborhood and Salmon’s neighbors Mr. Gilbert, Mr. Cozens, and Mr. Belden launched a light boat at the mouth of Conneaut Creek and conducted a determined search for Salmon and his canoe. Hour after hour they searched stretches of stormy Lake Erie, as far as five or six miles from land. Finally, they battled the waves to return to shore, giving up Salmon for lost.

Salmon Steers Toward the Canadian Shore

The wind- whipped Lake Erie waves battered his log canoe, making it necessary for Salmon Swetland to balance in the middle, moving his paddle from side to side in rhythm with the roiling Lake Erie waves.

For the remainder of the day, the wind and waves carried him far across boiling Lake Erie. In her History of the Western Reserve narrative of Salmon’s voyage, Harriet Upton notes that Salmon was “young, brave, and strong, and did not despair.” In his account of the voyage, Harvey Nettleton said that Salmon possessed “a cool head and a stout heart, and was a good sailor.” After considering his situation, he put before the wind and steered his canoe toward the Canadian shore. Some of the time, Salmon stood and balanced his canoe with his weight and his single paddle. The rest of the time he spent bailing water out of the canoe with his “stogies,” a pair of roughly made shoes or boots.

After a spending the day battling Lake Erie waves and gales, Salmon watched the sun sink below the horizon and the darkness wrap around him like one of Betsey’s homespun blankets. A few stars twinkled through the overcast skies and haze, and he used them to guide his path over the dark and dancing waters. Cold and hungry, Salmon continued paddling throughout the night. When the sun rose above the horizon, Salmon made out the lines of Long Point, on the Canadian shore of the lake. His voyage didn’t end smoothly, because he had to contend with an adverse wind and a cross sea, but he succeeded in safely reaching land on Long Point, Ontario, Canada.

Salmon Lands on Long Point, Canada

Although he beached his canoe and once again felt solid land under his stogies, Salmon’s trials continued. Faint with hunger and exhausted with fatigue, he stared at the country surrounding him. He didn’t see any human settlements, just marshes and tangled thickets. Summoning his courage, he continued his voyage, this time on land, toward a village or town. As he made his way along the Lake Erie shore, he found some goods that had washed up on shore from a shipwreck. They didn’t solve his immediate problems of food and shelter, but he made a mental note of their location and continued on his weary way.

Salmon reached a settlement after 30-40 or an unrecorded number of miles of traveling and here, again, the accounts of his adventure differ. Some say the Canadian settlers greeted him with hostility and suspicion, because the American invasions of their country during the War of 1812 still rankled in their memories. Many settlers on Long Point were United Empire Loyalists, fugitives from the American Revolution who had fled New Jersey and other former colonies to settle on land grants from the Canadian government like the Samuel Brown, Captain Walter Anderson, and Solomon Austin families.

In the introduction of his genealogy and history of Long Point, Pioneer Sketches of Long Point Settlement, E.A. Owen explained that after the Revolutionary War, “their property was confiscated, their families ostracized and exposed to insult, outrage an exploitation, their lives were in danger…Their zeal for the unity of the empire gave them the title of United Empire Loyalists, and these were the men who at the close of the war, sought a refuge and a home on British soil, among the northern forests, and laid deep the foundations of the institutions, the freedom, the loyalty and the prosperity of our land.”

Less than three decades later, American soldiers again disrupted their lives by raiding ad burning Port Dover and other Long Point settlements. Americans, even those traveling solo, weren’t welcome.

Canadian Settlers Nurse Salmon and He Takes a Schooner Home

Other accounts say that the Canadian settlers received and treated Salmon with great kindness and hospitality and nursed him back to health. After he recovered his strength, Salmon returned with a boat and some of his Canadian rescuers to the site of the shipwrecked goods he had marked. Then, he traveled by land from Long Point to Buffalo, New York, where he sold his treasure. The sale enabled him to “furnish himself in the garb of a gentleman” and secure passage on a schooner anchored in Buffalo Harbor and bound for Conneaut and other harbors.

Some accounts identify the schooner that carried Salmon home over the same Lake Erie waters that carried him away as the Fire Fly, Charles Brown of Ashtabula, captain. Others name the ship as the Traveller, Charles Brown of Ashtabula, captain. The Gerald C. Metzler Great Lakes Vessel Database reveals that the Traveller was built in 1817 in Ashtabula, Ohio, and that it had only three captains, Charles H. Brown from 1817-1818, Collins Wetmore, 1819 and Joseph Naper, 1821. The Fire Fly’s master from 1817-1819 is listed as David Norton.

No matter what ship or captain, Salmon voyaged Lake Erie once again, this time not accidentally, to rejoin his family in Conneaut. When the ship arrived at Conneaut Creek, the crew fired guns from the deck and cheered loudly at least three times. When he landed, Salmon found that the preacher had already preached his funeral sermon, and according to Harvey Nettleton, he had the “rare privilege” of seeing his widow wearing her mourning clothes. Despite the different sources, spellings, and details, one fact stands out like a Lake Erie sunset. Salmon made an accidental, but successful return visit to the British and enjoyed a homecoming from his wife Betsey who greeted him wearing the clothes she wore to mourn his death.

In the History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties, H.Z. Williams records that Salmon and his family moved to Bistolville in Trumbull County about 1819. The 1820 Federal Census lists Salmon and his wife living in Bristol, where he opened one of the first stores in the county.

The pattern of conflicting and uncertain stories in Salmon’s life continued after his death. Salmon’s wife Betsey, his son Salmon Jr. his wife Sarah, his son Leonard and his wife Sabra and some of their children are buried in North Madison, Cemetery, North Madison, Ohio. Captain Charles Brown is buried in Lake Road Cemetery, Ashtabula.  The records suggest that there are two possible burial sites for Salmon. Some sources say that he was killed in an accidental explosion on July 4, 1827, in Boston. Others say he died in a farm accident in Bristol in Trumbull County, Ohio.

Accidental voyage, accidental death, and purposeful Lake Erie- all shaped the life of Salmon Peter Swetland.