Andrew Keech, and his young family, settled on a farm near Clayton, New York, around 1830, thus continuing more than 150 years of history that four generations of Keech shared with the Thousand Islands. By 1846, Andrew and his wife, Hannah, had ten children, many of whom, along with their children’s children, made notable and often remarkable contributions to the culture, economy and history of the region.
Patriots, Soldiers and Frontiersmen
Andrew’s father, James, his grandfather and his uncles first migrated from Rhode Island to the Mohawk Valley, near Albany, in the 1760s. During the Revolutionary War, James and a couple of his brothers served in the New York Militia stationed primarily at Fort Stanwix in Oneida County, New York. They were involved in fights against the British, the Tories and the Indians. After the war, James and some of his brothers started farming in Oneida County and raised their families. Andrew was likely born there in 1798.
The War of 1812 brought the Keech family to Sackets Harbor, New York, with its naval shipyard and fort. Andrew’s older brothers, James and John (my direct ancestor), joined the militia and served there under General Jacob Brown. Andrew’s father, although not in the militia, worked around the fort and naval base at Sackets Harbor. It is very likely that James had young Andrew and the rest of his family with him. It was during the war years that the Keech family grew familiar with the Thousand Islands and the upper St. Lawrence River, as the area was the site of several military operations.
After the War of 1812, the Keech family moved back to Oneida County to farm. In the 1820’s, as new settlers moved into the Oneida area, it must have become increasingly difficult to make a living. During this time, Andrew, while working on his father’s farm, most likely met and married his wife, Hannah (born 1807). They left Oneida County around 1827 settling near Sackets Harbor where their second son, John, was born about 1829. They eventually moved to Depauville, still largely unsettled, to farm and to participate in the lumber and potash trade.
The Canada Connection
During the same period, Andrew’s brothers; Henry, John (my ancestor) and Albert; all left Oneida County and moved to Ontario, Canada, settling in Lennox and Addington County, about 30 miles southwest of Kingston, Ontario, near Napanee. They must have been attracted by the availability of farmland and the active lumbering business there. With Keech family on both sides of the St. Lawrence River, the river itself became a connection between family members. Indeed, Andrew and his family lived in Canada for at least two years as their youngest children, Charles and Victoria, were born there in 1844 and 1846 respectively. Among many such movements by the Keech family through the decades that followed, my great-grandmother, Mary Ellen Keech, moved to Sackets Harbor in 1923 with her husband, James Watson McAdam.
The Second Generation: Andrew’s Children
After leaving Canada, sometime before 1850, Andrew and his family moved back to a farm in Jefferson County, New York, near the village of Omar. Evidence indicates that Andrew also engaged in water-born trade in and around the Thousand Islands and Great Lakes in the 1850s and 1860s. Andrew Keech died in 1886 on a farm near Depauville run by his daughter, Victoria, and her husband David Hill. Hannah likely died around 1870. During this time, their children came of age, participated in war, started families, moved west and pursued a variety of careers. However, a synopsis of each of their children shows the deep connection the family had with the Thousand Islands.
(1) Alpheus (born about 1826) was a carpenter, ship builder and ship captain. He drowned in Lake Erie in 1854 as Captain in the wreck of the cargo schooner, OMAR, named for the village of Omar.
(2) John (born about 1827 in Sackets Harbor) was a carpenter, cabinetmaker, ship builder, ferry captain, tax collector, and hotel operator. He married Abigail Stickney, had several children and lived in Fishers Landing in the Town of Orleans. We will learn more about John later.
(3) Mary (born about 1831) may have married a local man.
(4) Catherine (born about 1835 in Depauville) married Ira Gillett in 1856 and she had three children. She also lived on a farm near Depauville, Although not in the family anymore, to this day, the farm is still in operation and many of the farm and household implements Ira and Catherine used are still there. Numerous descendants still reside in the area.
(5) Jesse (born about 1835) was also involved in the wreck of the OMAR, but there is no known information on him after the wreck.
(6) Philo (born about 1839) may have been a crewmember on the OMAR. He moved to Illinois in the late 1850s, married and had four children. He moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, working as a grocer by 1880 and finally settled in San Diego, California by 1900.
(7) Milton (born about 1840) was involved in the wreck of the OMAR. He moved to Illinois in the late 1850s. In 1861, he joined the Union Army and mustered out in 1866 as a Second Lieutenant. He then moved back to New York, married and had children. He settled in Gouverneur, New York, became a wagon maker and prominent citizen, married again, and died in 1914, at the age of 76, while working in his wagon shop.
(8) Henry (born about 1841) survived the wreck of the OMAR. He joined the Union cavalry in 1863 and saw action. After the war, he married and moved to the Idaho territory, where he had three children. A carpenter and farmer, he finally settled in eastern Washington by 1880, and died there about 1893.
(9) Charles (born about 1844 in Canada) may have been killed in the Civil War.
(10) Victoria Adelaide (born about 1846 in Canada) married David Hill before 1867, had two children, and lived on a farm in the Town of Clayton. In 1900, Victoria and David lived on a farm in the Town of Orleans near Depauville. David died in the early 1900s. Victoria moved to San Diego, California, near her brother Philo, where she died sometime after 1930.
Wreck of the Omar
The Observer (A.E. Keech) wrote in "On-the-St. Lawrence," wrote the story of the Wreck of the Omar. A portion of the article is reprinted here. “October 1, 1855 was the most eventful day in the history of the little village of Omar…
The day was the chosen day for departure for the Great Lakes of the spick and span new sailing vessel that had been named after the village, and the entire population of the country roundabout was there to give the boys a grand sendoff. The vessel was built and launched from the point of land at the entrance to a small bay on Wellesley Island at what has since been known as the Hiram Moore farm.
Harrison and Galen Pearson, brothers, both young and ambitious for reputation were the builders and although they afterward conducted for many years a great ship building plant at Ogdensburgh, and acquired fame and wealth, the OMAR they said was the handsomest, most complete and fastest, freighted into fresh water.
The entire crew as recognition of the honor of the name were Omar young men. Alpheus Keech was commander, his brother Milton and brother-in-law Frank Burr were next in authority and besides them, there were four others whose names are forgotten.
Late in November of that year, a hurricane destroyed millions of dollars of property on land and water. The OMAR was on Lake Erie and while vainly seeking protection of Cleveland harbor, a great tidal wave lifted the vessel high in air and dashed it down to complete destruction on the end of a breakwater pier.
A life saving crew and tug rescued the victims of the wreck, some of whom were frozen to insensibility. Captain Keech, true to vessel commander tradition, was the last man to leave the ship. He lashed the rope thrown him from the tug under arms and leaped to the waters, but the rope had slipped from the rescuers' hands, and he went down to death. The rescued, but nearly frozen to death sailors, were for many following weeks under hospital care.
Six years later, when president Lincoln sent forth his first call for volunteers, Milton Keech and Frank Burr who had been members of the crew of the ill-fated OMAR, and their brothers Henry and Charles Keech, were among the first to respond. Charles Keech and Frank Burr, the latter's children now residing at Gouverneur, were both killed in battle.
The complete story appeared in the Potsdam Courier Freeman, Potsdam, New York, Wednesday, October 15, 1919, page 1, column 4.
John Keech: Man of the River
John Keech was a prolific, hardworking and respected man. Born about 1827 in Sackets Harbor, John spent most of his early years on the farm in Omar with his parents, Andrew and Hannah Keech. Reportedly a “powerful six-footer,” John married Abigail Stickney in 1853 in Sackets Harbor. Their oldest son, Alpheus E. Keech, was born there in 1855, but within a year they had moved back to Omar.
In 1862, John and Abigail moved to Fishers Landing located on the river in the Town of Orleans, where he remained the rest of his life. Here John opened a hotel, engaged in carpentry and cabinet making, ran a shipbuilding company named Keech & Robins, held public office and operated a ferry service, among other occupations. His skills as a shipbuilder inspired one ship owner to name a steamer after him, the “Sir John Keech.”
As the town tax collector in 1877, John thwarted a scheme to pilfer the funds of a town bond issue for a railroad. He bought and sold property in Fishers Landing and around the islands. Reportedly, John had quit claim rights to a large portion of Murray Island, but didn’t exercise the rights because he didn’t want to pay taxes on an island with no trees left to lumber. For many years, John operated the steam ferry, “Lawrence Gaige,” which served such river villages as Clayton, Gananoque, Fishers Landing, Alexandria Bay and Ogdensburg, along with some island destinations.
Tragedy struck in 1878, when John was severely hurt in a barn raising on the Isle of Pines. He was an invalid for thirteen years until he died in April 1891. His wife and family cared for him at his home in Fishers Landing during those years. One local paper had a small notice: “John Keech, an old and much respected citizen, past [sic] away on the 21st.” John is buried in the Omar cemetery with a monument carved and inscribed by his son, Alpheus E. Keech, from Thousand Islands granite.
The Stickney Heritage
Abigail Stickney, the wife of John Keech, came from a family with a prominent history. The original Stickney immigrants arrived in Massachusetts, not long after the Mayflower. Abigail’s father Thomas Stickney, may have served in the New York Militia at Sackets Harbor during the War of 1812. Abigail’s grandfather, Samuel Stickney, was in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. As such, John and Abigail’s children could claim membership in the Society of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. Thomas Stickney lived in Sackets Harbor and married Mary B. Hardy there in 1828. (Andrew and Hannah Keech lived there at that time.) Thomas bought land around Omar, possibly eligible to buy as a war veteran. He operated a hotel there and was postmaster from 1851-1853 when Abigail, his daughter, married John Keech. By 1860, Thomas was operating a farm. Eventually, Thomas, and his wife, moved to Sackets Harbor where he died about 1886.
The Children of John and Abigail Keech
Alpheus E. Keech, born in 1855 in Sackets Harbor, New York, is the oldest child and the most well known of the Keech family. He moved with his family to Fishers Landing when he was seven years old. He worked as a house painter, carpenter and boat builder with his father and brothers in Fishers Landing. In 1890, the year his father died, Alpheus, showing artistic talent, is credited with painting a six feet by four feet picture of the yacht race between the “Thistle” and the “Volunteer.”
Through 1895, although he still earned a living through boat building, Alpheus made the decision to become a professional artist selling souvenirs to tourists attracted to the Thousand Islands region. He set up a studio on Water Street in Clayton in which he made souvenirs out of wood, bark or leather and decorated with painting and drawings. His studio burned down in 1895, but he set up shop in another location to continue his art.
His most notable artistic contributions were miniature wooden paddles with the blades being painted with faces, boats, river scenes, and other images. There were two sizes but the smaller ones sold better because people could fit them in their luggage, according to Alpheus’ sister, Abigail. These valued paddles are still found in antique shops and museums around the country. He is also credited with the detail painting of the passenger steamer, “New York”, in 1900, in addition to other steamers through his career. And in 1904, he painted signs for use by the New York State Forest, Fish and Game Commission during the St. Louis World’s Fair.
In addition to his art, Alpheus was active in the community and recognized as an authority on the history of the Thousand Island region. He served as the Clayton historian for many years. He regularly wrote commentary in the local newspapers on current events or history under the nom de plume of “The Observer.” He fought to prevent commercial netting of fish in the St. Lawrence River, and complained about uncertainty in property rights especially for the islands. Alpheus died in 1926 as a revered member of the community and is buried in the Omar Cemetery.
Some Left Home
The opening of the West in the United States attracted the Keech family too. Alpheus’s brother, Barnett Keech (born in 1856), moved west to Colorado in 1881. He was involved in the cattle and sheep business. He died in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1942 never having married. In 1882, Elbridge Keech (born in 1860), another brother, migrated west settling in New Mexico.
Another son of John and Abigail, Charles H. Keech (born in 1863), had close ties to the Thousand Islands. In the late 1880’s, like his father, he operated a vessel on the river. In 1889, he married Eleanor Louise Nulty from Clayton, New York. By 1891, they moved to Canada living in the Brockville-Gananoque area where he worked as a vessel operator, house painter, and carriage maker. But, in 1906, he and Eleanor moved to Calgary, Alberta. He died there in 1937.
The two younger sisters, Abigail (born in 1864) and Mary (born in 1872), never married and always lived in the house their father and mother built in Fishers Landing. Both were seamstresses and both were active in the local Methodist church. They were active members of the Alexandria Bay chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, serving as officers and meeting hosts on many occasions. Always proud of their family and their brothers, “Abby” died in 1953 and Mary in 1964 and both are buried in the Omar Cemetery.
John H. – A Full Life
John H. Keech was the youngest child of John and Abigail. Born at Fishers Landing in 1867, he grew up on the water helping his father. By the time he was an adult, he was an accomplished boat handler, house painter, carpenter and fishing guide. He was well regarded as a craftsman, building and repairing many homes, cottages and businesses in the region. He was not necessarily lucky in love, however.
In 1909, his first wife for less than a year, Samantha, sued him for $30,000 for alienation of affections based on his relationship with a nurse who had treated him for a medical condition. The “scandal” was so great that John and his oldest brother, Alpheus, were briefly arrested for fighting with some local toughs over the affair. The lawsuit, however, was eventually dismissed at trial, and the marriage annulled, when Samantha was found to have been married to two other men at the time she married John.
Love did find John, however, when he married Juliet Rogers in 1917, the daughter of a prominent businessman from Carthage, New York. They were married on Grenell Island where the Rogers family had a summer home. They lived in Utica, New York, and St. Petersburg, Florida, while coming back to the Thousand Islands most summers. Tragedy struck when Juliet died in Florida in 1932, leaving John with their only child, John Rogers Keech (born in 1919). Living in the Clayton area with his father, John Rogers, graduated from Clayton High School, and served in Coast Guard during World War II. Tragedy struck again when John Rogers was killed in an auto accident in 1944. John Keech continued to live in Fishers Landing in a house next to his sisters, Abby and Mary. He died in 1956.
While the Keech name is not so prominent nowadays in the Clayton-Fishers Landing area, the Keech family influence can still be found in the antique shops and history records of the region. And their story is typical of many families in the Thousand Islands, then and now.
There are many unanswered questions about the Keech family – Can you help find the answers?
(1) Did they participate in the underground railroad?
(2) Did a Keech participate in the Patriots War to “liberate” Canada around 1837?
(3) It’s possible that one Keech died in the Rockwood Lunatic Asylum for the criminally insane in Kingston, but we have no direct evidence.
(4) Could a Keech have associated with pirate Bill Johnston?
By M. Bruce McAdam
M. Bruce McAdam lives in Maryland with his wife and son. He grew up in Brownville, New York, and attended General Brown High School. He spent five summers working at Wellesley Island State Park during high school and college. With family in Clayton and Watertown, and cousins in Canada, he visits the Thousand Islands often. As the family historian, he discovered this fascinating branch of his Keech ancestors. He thanks Dan Touse and Nora McLean, along with other Keech historians for their contributions. And he thanks Robert and Prudence Matthews of Fishers Landing, Louis Badour of Clayton, and the late Buford Gillette of Depauville for input into this article, along with support from the Thousand Islands Museum and the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton.