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Main Duck, part of the "Graveyard of Lake Ontario."


MAIN DUCK is an island in the Canadian waters of Lake Ontario, twelve miles (nineteen kilometers) from the nearest mainland, Point Traverse at the south east corner of the County of Prince Edward, and lying between there and the Galloos. With Yorkshire Island, quarter of a mile off its shore, it amounts to over 700 acres of land. It is the largest of a series of Islands at the easterly end of the lake known collectively as the Ducks. Farther west, and nearer Point Traverse, are the False Ducks, comprising of False Duck, Timber, the Duckling islands, and a wicked layout of duck eggs in the form of reefs and boulders. Farther to the south-east, this island chain continues with the Galloos and Stoney Island to the American shore. Given the prevailing south-westerly winds, in the age of sail (and to a lesser extent since then) ships that lost their means of propulsion and maneuverability and were at the mercy of the weather, accounted statistically for a very high number of strandings and shipwrecks.

It is an outstanding entity of temperamental, but beautiful, Lake Ontario. On a map of Canada West, undated but showing great detail, the False Ducks are shown as "The Drakes." The Main Duck is synonymous with raw, stark happenings. Two hundred years ago and more, Main Duck was as isolated as Robinson' Carusoe's island. The only boat harbour is at the east tip of the island. The French called Main Duck "Isle au Coulis" [1].

Long before the unification of Canada in 1760, when both the British and French had a fleet on Lake Ontario, two French ships came to grief on Charity Shoal, eight miles North East of the Main Duck. One got off badly damaged, and with the survivors of the other wrecked vessel, drifted across to the Main Duck. They tried to drive her over the bar, into the little boat harbour, but she fetched up to leeward of it, being unmanageable after her mauling on Charity Shoal, and pounded her bottom out at Gravely Point. The survivors, reaching land on rafts, salvaged what they could of provisions, war stores and treasure, including the pay chest, before their vessel went to pieces. They prepared to winter on the island, if not rescued sooner, because even their small boat had been destroyed.

It is said that they buried their French Gold just in case their rescuers turned out to be British. Then they buried their dead from the wreck, washed up on the shore by the waves. They conitinued to bury their dead, one by one, as they perished of cold, exposure and short rations of spoiled provisions. At length there was only one man left. He had buried all his companions. His skeleton was found many years afterwards. He had perished from hunger, on the south, or lakeward side of the island, watching the waterbound horizon which never showed a sail.

It was recorded that early visitors to the island witnessed, on the tongue of land south of the boat harbour, grave sites, mounds of land, some of them marked by headstones formed by limestone slabs from the beach, others not marked at all. Hence the roigins of the name "Graveyard Point" But not all of the graves were at that point for all around the harbour human bones, military buttons, bayonets, sword blades, grape shot, and cannon balls were dug up. One group of human bones were found at an old orchard near an old shelter which served as a pig stye in the time of Isaiah Thompson, and Jackson Bongard, and were witnessed by Nelson Palmatier in the 1860s, when he was a boy..

North of the harbour, nearer the bluff and Schoolhouse Bay than Graveyard Point, half a dozen graves were found. There is a boulder on the north face of the Island estimated as weighing more than a ton. On it's face is crudely inscribed a number or a date "1764" or "1769."

Main Duck Island is where Sir James Lucas Yeo pulled in for shelter after a running battle with the American Commodore, Chauncey, on September 11, 1813, and off these same shores was another battle on the 18th of October 1813. It was past this Island that the mightiest sailing ship of the western world at the time, HMS St. Lawrence, built in Kingston Ontario in 1814, first worked her way into the lake.

Early French historical records indicate references to many shipwreck on Isle au Coulis, and subsequent records in the mid to late nineteenth century indicate that the sand bars of the Main Duck claimed a couple of wrecks yearly.

Under British rule Main Duck was originally held in trust for the Alnwick tribe of Indians [2]. It was used, however, by local fishermen and farmers. Captain Walters farmed 300 acres at Point Traverse. The land was never that good, so he rented the Main Duck Island to pasture his cattle, and reigned supreme on the Island, as the major landlord, from 1848 to 1892. During his forty-four year reign of Main Duck island, John Walters owned in whole or part, the small schooners TRADE WIND, F.F. COLE, FLORA, JOHN WALTERS, NELLIE HUNTER and FABIOLA, and scow schooners SAUCY JACK, SEA BIRD, JESSIE BROWN and GENTLE JANE.

He had John Tait build the Jessie Brown at Case's Wharf, Point Traverse with a very shallow draft so that he could take cattle to the island to graze for the summer. The rest of the sailing season the Jessie Brown supplied Cooper Brothers of Port Milford with goods from Kingston, and freighted Prince Edward hay and grain and fish to Kingston when she came for carpets and calicoes, lamp chimneys, thread, salt, sugar, tea, coffee, and whatever South Marysburg township could not raise for itself.

The predecessor of the Jessie Brown was the Gentle Jane, an oversize fishboat, to big for two men to row, but not big enough to run fish across Lake Ontario to Oswego, or to Cape Vincent at the entrance to the St.Lawrence, which were the best markets. Used as a ferry to the Main Duck, Captain Walters could pack a dozen sheep or pigs or calves into her for a quick run over the twelve miles from Point Traverse. One of his great feats of navigation was to bring across two bulls in the Gentle Jane moored fore and aft between the thwarts, one facing forward, one facing aft, and the centreboard box between them. They had boards hung from their horns and rings in their noses and no scope to toss or stamp. He had no problems - it would appear that seasickness was a great pacificatory.

Captain Walters and his brothers Dyer and William, had as many as 400 sheep on the Main Duck, and 200 cattle, thirty of them milkers; 60 hogs; 30 horses and colts, working or boarding. Twelve boats then fished the Ducks; and a good day's haul was four tons of lake trout and whitefish. The fishermen lived ashore in shacks with their families, and their wives milked the cows and churned the butter which was shipped to Kingston in the little schooners that could wiggle between Yorkshire and the Main Duck, and even into the pond or boat harbour.

Late in the fall everybody, bulls included, went home to the mainland and a couple of caretakers reigned till spring. Before the snow melted they would spread hayseed and it would come up fast and be waist high in June. By this time the fishermen, farmhands and livestock would be back. The hay would be whisked off by scythes and sickles, and the hogs would be turned loose in the stubble to exterminate the new crop of snakes. The pigs would also fight the muskrats, which were so numerous they would snap at men when cornered and everybody would wear boots knee high before going into the marsh, for the rats would jump knee high to get their teeth in. Alex Taylor of Picton Ontario once recalled making a haul of 1200 muskrat skins in one season on the Main Duck and selling them to a dealer in Kingston.

Captain John Walters and his brothers built their second vessel, the schooner Harriet Ann, on the Main Duck in 1856, upon the bottom of the old schooner Robert Bruce. Captain Walters went on to own a large fleet of other schooners. Between 1848 and 1892, the time he was on the Main Duck, he owned the small schooners Trade Wind, F.F. Cole, Flora, and the much larger John Walters, Picton, Nellie Hunter, and Fabiola; he also owned the scow schooners Saucy Jack and Sea Bird, and of course the Jessie Brown.

Another enterprise that existed on the Main Duck was a sturgeon pond, in which Captain Walters stored sturgeon for market. Captain Nelson Palmateer once recalled as a boy working on the island, watching Captain Walters wading into this pond and wrestling barehanded with a giant sturgeon. The fish - or the water - threw Capt. Walters on his back, but he did not give up and dragged the giant to the Jessie Brown, and ultimately to market.

After it was built in 1881, it is recorded that the small schooner F.F. Coles, (named after Francis Farrington Coles) had a regular route, picking up "rough fish" from Brighton to Oswego, stopping at the fishing stations at Wellers Bay, Wellington, Wicked Point, Gull Pond, Point Traverse, and The Ducks, like a small boat.

About the year 1892 the island was deeded to private ownership. Claud W. Cole owned the land from the early 1890s until his death in 1938.

The land was farmed, stock being sailed over from the mainland and brought back in the fall, along with the farmers and fishermen and their families who lived on the island in the summer time. Schoolhouse Bay on the island commemorates the little log school for children, although the school has long since disappeared. At one time "King" Cole imported a herd of Buffalo to the island to add atmosphere to his little summer kingdom. But they were ill natured. They gored a few of his choice cows. He took his rifle and shot them. He also had bears and Angola goats from Montana among the quadruped stock. Nevertheless Main Duck has, throughout it's history, been the centre of a very prosperous fishing industry.

In 1941, attracted by the low lying expanse, heavily wooded with tall fine trees, redolent with a certain quaint charm; the glorious swish of fresh water; the exciting sound of the fog horn; and the fire of the beacon, the island was purchased from Claude Cole's widow by a Mr. Delly, a wealthy New York City property owner. After WWII the island was purchased by John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State of the United States. The Main Duck and Yorkshire, and their eggs, were purchased by Parks Canada in 1977, hopefully to be kept in perpetuity for the people of Canada.

Word from the Main Duck

Mail from the Main Duck in winter time was invariably by the "letter in a bottle method", the only means of communication available to the few caretakers. One such letter to Mrs. Simon Cole of Milford was picked up on the north side of Stoney Island (American side of the Lake) in a bottle, with others, on January 5, 1903. The bottle was found by Orvis Luff. Verbatim it states:

Dear Father,

I suppose you are looking for our annual letter and will try to get this off before long. At present the wind is north. This is December 27. Just as the wind is south I will date my letters and send them We are all well and getting along nicely without work. at present the men have 100 cords of wood cut. We have only drawn two days yet. The drawing is a small job. We have a good rig. We just draw a cord and a half to a load and do it quite handily. We are using Lucy and the kiker for the head team. They can draw anything with two ends to it and anything they cannot draw, why, Vidoc can, so you see we cannot be stuck. I never saw a horse come up like Vidoc since I put him in the stable. We nearly killed our beef yesterday and it is very nice. I have just 30 head of cattle in the cow barn and have the horse barn all finished and keep 12 head in the new barn and four in the other. The 16 horses eat quite a lot of hay each day. We uncovered o stack today and the first still day we can steam, up and thrash. Have laid up the boats engine and she is pulling in the channel by the ice house. We have sawed our winters wood and have it piled in the old house. Cannot lay up the other engine until we thrash. Suppose you heard of the wreck of the John E. Hall. The tug ferris was here looking for her. We found her cupboard and two sculling oars and pieces of her house and a life preserver that had been tied on some poor fellow. The strap the arm goes through had broken and let him fall out. The strap that goes through the body was still tied. It has on it Prop. John E. Hall. We saw her Saturday morning and at noon I told the boys that she must be a dandy if she got through safely. Cecil says that this cold weather makes our old sow have a very sharp voice.

Dec. 31. We though we would try and get our letters off to-day. The wind is south-west. That will take our raft near the American shore if it holds there. fred is after a load of wool and the men are quitting today. Tomorrow we all dine with Alyseworth, it being New Year's day. They were all here at Christmas. We had turkey for dinner. We will have goose for new Years's.

Hoping this will find you all Well
Your son
Claude Cole


[ Back ] Footnote 1: Variously given as 'coulis' and 'courlis', both origins are possible in eighteenth century French. A coulis is a "draught of air"; this could refer to the prevailing winds blowing many ships onto this chain of islands, stretching as a near barrier from the Canadian to the American shores of Lake Ontario. The courlis (nowadays more often 'courlis corlieu') is known in English as the whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), a not uncommon bird in the Lake Ontario region.

[ Back ] Footnote 2: The Mississaugas of the Bay of Quinte, now located north of Coburg, had original, eighteenth century, claims to many islands and coastal areas; however events in 1822 and 1856 are often accepted as cessation of thier lands, parts to settlers and parts to what is now Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Discussion is now mostly dormant, but some doubt remains.

[The above is based in part on notes in the Robert B. Townsend fonds. Other notes, additions (mostly from the Metcalfe fonds, and edits, P.A., September 2016.]



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Revised: 14 September 2016