An article in the New York Times last year described how important family relationships are to children. Among other things, the article lamented one hazard of modern life – that children often don’t know where they come from, who their ancestors are, and that they are not just little islands that have popped out of the ether, but rather a continuation of something larger and more robust. I read that article as I was about to publish a book on my mother’s family, who started life in North America in the late 1840s in the Thousand Islands. Reading that article and writing about my mother’s family brought home to me how important a role the Thousand Islands have played in my family’s history and how important certain family members were to our multi-generational story.
As a girl, I spent every summer on Wellesley Island at my grandfather’s summer home and grew up hearing story after story about my family’s deep connections to the area. Those stories created a strong bond among all of us kids for the St. Lawrence. My great-grandmother, Mary Hunt, left her home on Hill Island in 1884 to marry Patrick Prendergast. Although the couple settled in Utica and had seven children, my great-grandmother and her children continued to visit the Thousand Islands at every opportunity. My grandfather and all of his siblings would never have been able to enjoy such a close relationship to their mother’s home and family without the help and devotion of another relative – their mother’s younger brother, Henry Joseph Hunt. Uncle Henry is the person who made all of this Thousand Island magic possible. In the days before automobiles and bridges, he ferried various members of his clan from the railroad station in Redwood to the family homestead on Hill Island. He did that for more than 50 years – from the time his sister left in 1884 until her oldest son (my grandfather) purchased his place on Wellesley Island after the International Bridge opened in 1937. Talk about devotion!
Henry Joseph Hunt was born in 1866 on LaRue Island, now known as Hill Island. His father, Thomas Hunt, was one of five Hunt brothers who emigrated to the Thousand Islands in the late 1840s from Cappawhite, a tiny village in County Tipperary, Ireland. All five brothers became farmers once they left Ireland and settled in Canada. Two of the five, Vere Robert and Francis, farmed on Club Island and another brother, Fitzmaurice, settled in Rockport. The most prosperous brother was Henry Hiet Hunt; he had a 250-acre farm on Hill Island and he also bought property in Ivy Lea, where some of his descendants still live. The fifth brother was Thomas, who owned a 180-acre property that stretched across Hill Island from Club Island to the Lake of the Isles. That was the world that young Henry Hunt was born into. He was surrounded by other Hunts. His father Thomas’ four brothers lived so close that Henry could stand on his front porch, yell, and at least one uncle would hear him. (Perhaps it was the proximity to so much family in the 19th century that created bonds strong enough to last into the 21st century.)
Life on the islands in the 1800s was difficult. There was no electricity, running water, or telephones. People worked so hard that they didn’t look for entertainment after they finished dinner; they looked for quiet conversation and a good book. Everything was hard work – even getting around the islands. Fetching supplies was easy in the summer when Henry could row a boat for the short hop from Hill Island to Rockport, or in the winter when the river froze so solidly that he could take a team of horses out on the ice without much danger. But in the fall and spring, when moving ice could capsize a boat and the cold water could kill you fast, the river was treacherous. The people who lived on the islands in those days had to be self-sufficient and acutely aware of the natural elements.
Uncle Henry was known as “Big” Henry, to differentiate him from his uncle of the same name and who was more diminutive in size. Big Henry was a physically imposing man – a few inches over 6 feet tall and built like a prize fighter; in fact, for a time, he was a prize fighter. My mother’s younger sister used to describe how Uncle Henry boxed in Madison Square Garden in New York City – it must have been in the 1880s – and accidentally killed another fighter in the ring. After that, he walked away from boxing and never fought again. Old newspaper clippings describe how Henry won countless swimming and rowing contests on both sides of the river as a young man. He worked for a time for a wealthy family who offered to send him to college, which would have opened many doors for a boy who had grown up in such a rustic environment. But Henry Hunt would not leave the Thousand Islands even temporarily.
Even in the 1800s and early 1900s, there were not a lot of full-time jobs for workers in the area during the off-season. But Uncle Henry cobbled together a living for himself and his wife, the former Aurelia Chayne. He was one of the countless workmen who built Boldt Castle. Uncle Henry put the roof on the children’s playhouse on Heart Island and used to describe how all the workmen dropped their tools when the telegram came from George Boldt to stop all work on the castle because Mrs. Boldt had died. For a number of years, he cared for some of the summer mansions of the wealthy in the off-season. He also worked as a guide for fishermen and hunters. He built a rustic cabin for them on his father’s Hill Island farm facing the Lake of the Isles. He called the cabin “Castle by the Sea” and when it wasn’t being used by outdoorsmen, it became summer quarters for Uncle Henry’s extended family, including his nephew James Prendergast (my grandfather) and James’ eight children. My mother, Bernadette Prendergast Nelson, used to reminisce about being chased by cows and horses on the island and how Uncle Henry was always there to rescue the kids from any ornery farm animals.
Uncle Henry and his wife moved to Alexandria Bay some time before 1920, and his brother, Robert Hunt, remained on Hill Island on the family farm and hosted the various relations. Uncle Henry had done so well that he always had a large boat and other transportation. Whenever his sister Mary and her children would visit, he met them at the railroad station in Redwood, brought them to Alexandria Bay (by horse and wagon or later by car), loaded them all into his big mahogany inboard motor boat and ferried them to Hill Island and the family farm. Almost all of our family photos from the early 1900s include Uncle Henry in some way. It’s clear that he was at the very center of our family’s life at the St. Lawrence.
He was generous to more than just his family. If you look through old newspapers, you’ll find numerous articles describing how Uncle Henry came to the aid of boaters whose boats became disabled or who had become lost. He tracked down and apprehended people who robbed summer homes, and he helped in all kinds of rescues, including dragging the river when people drowned. The most personal of those rescues had to be when he found the body of his nephew, Joseph Cirtwell, who drowned after his boat became disabled as the ice was breaking up in March 1925.
Uncle Henry did very well financially from all of his various jobs. He amassed enough money to purchase numerous properties in and around Alexandria Bay. Unfortunately, Uncle Henry lost much of his nest egg during a bank run immediately following the stock market crash in 1929. By then he was in his 60s, but he continued to work, captaining boats, ferrying family and friends between the islands, and sometimes receiving unusual payments for his services. One of the items that Uncle Henry accepted in payment for a debt was a loud-mouthed parrot. According to the family stories, in the 1920s and 1930s, the bird knew many of the neighboring kids on Avery Avenue in Alexandria Bay and would call out to them by name if he spotted them outside the house.
By the time I was born, Uncle Henry and Aunt Aurelia were ancient. But every summer, my mother would always bring my brother and me to visit them in their house on Avery Avenue. Although he died at age 92 in 1958, whenever I think of the Thousand Islands, I think of Uncle Henry and the many stories my mother and my grandfather used to tell about him. And I’m not alone. The hundreds of people who are descended from those folks he used to ferry to the family farm, remember Uncle Henry and the role he played in keeping the St. Lawrence alive in our hearts for generations.
By Kate Nelson Morgan
Kate Nelson Morgan grew up in New Hartford, New York (a suburb of Utica) and spent summers on Wellesley Island until she was about 20. For many years, she worked in organizational communications in New York City. In 2006, she became a full-time faculty member at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, where she teaches human resources and introduction to business. She and her husband, Steve, live near Philadelphia and she still visits the St. Lawrence every summer. Her great love is genealogy and she has written three books about her family history.