What's in a Name #4: Lake Bonaparte

Following the advice of our Upstate Reading List, I recently borrowed Upstate Echoes by Arch Merrill from the Johnson City public library. It seems that Mr. Merrill has travelled around the region collecting stories of people and places, some long gone and others a bit more recent.

Chapter 2 of the book is titled "A King in the Woods" and tells the story of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon and former king of Naples and Spain, and his brief sojourn to the Great North Woods. I first heard of Joseph while studying Spanish history; he has gone down in Spanish history as "Pepe Botella" (Joe Bottle) and was famous for incompetence and drunkeness. After his conquest of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily (1806), Napoleon put his trusted brother on the throne. A few years later (1808), Joseph was "promoted" to throne of Spain, a move of hubris to which Napoleon later traced his downfall.

Spain became Napoleon's soft underbelly as, for the first time, the Spaniards united to overthrow a common enemy. Known in Spain as the "War of Independence" and to the English speaking world as the "Peninsular War," the Spaniards and their English allies fought until 1814 against Pepe Botella's forces [1].

Finally, in 1814, Joseph fled Spain, to be replaced by Ferdinand VII "the Desired," of the old Bourbon dynasty. Soon the Napoleonic adventure would come to a close in 1815 with the battle of Waterloo. However, Joseph was still on the loose and seeking a place of refuge. Carting with him the royal treasures of Spain, the 47 year old ex-king decided to disappear off the face of the earth. He purchased 26,840 acres in northern New York for approximately $120,000.

Why New York? He probably pick America because of its pro-French stand in the War of 1812 and the Louisana Purchase and its status as a Republic (which technically France was for a while). As for why New York over the other states, we can only speculate. Perhaps it was an accident of history that the seller, a naturalized American citizen named James Le Ray de Chaumont, owned land in New York. But of course, New York at the time had a history of promoting the ownership of huge patents (land grants) by individuals on its frontier. In addition, New York had a unique history amongst the Northeastern states of landed aristocracy that Bonaparte would recognize.

Disguised as "the Count de Survelliers," Joseph spent the cooler months in Philadelphia and the summer in the foothills of the Adirondacks. He met, wooed and eventually lived with a young Quaker woman named Annette Savage.

In 1818, Bonaparte travelled for the first time to the North Country. To quote Merrill:

"The wild beauty of the land delighted him. He like to hunt in the woods and fish in the sparkling lake, which he named Diana, after the goddess of hunting. Later on, it became Lake Bonaparte. The natives called it 'Bony's lake'... In a cliff on the eastern shore of Lake Bonaparte near the present big hotel, Joseph built a sumptuous log hunting lodge. At Alpine near the outlet he cleared 30 acres and planned a summer residence, 'The White House,' there. It was never completed. He cut roads around the lake and he built a house of the native limestone for Annette..." (pg 18)
The mansion he eventually built in the village of Natural Bridge was a fortress, as he lived in perpetual fear of the Bourbons (perhaps for good reason, the Bonapartists eventually considered him the heir to the throne after the death of Napoleon's son). Though sturdily built, the mansion also had the first indoor plumbing in the North Country. [2]

Though he only spent a few summers in the woods, the locals would tell tales for generations of incredible gondolas on the lake, "hunting parties in velvet suits and cloaks and ruffles, eating off gold plate in the forest... of the portable library that accompanied Bonaparte on his travels..."

The 1830 Revolution in France called Bonaparte home. He abandoned his home which he sold in 1835 and left Annette (though with a considerable settlement). He would die in 1844 without ever returning to his home or lover. He left behind some descendents, though Annette, in the North Woods and in fact one of them, Annette's daughter Caroline Benton, was recognized by Napoleon III in 1859. She was ruined when the Bonapartists fell in the Franco-Prussian War and returned to the United States in 1871.

Today, the last remnant of her is a small stone in the cemetery of the Oxbow Presbyterian Church which reads: "Caroline C. B. Benton" ("B" stands for Bonaparte). The daughter of the King of two countries and the niece of the Emperor who almost ruled Europe sleeps in a quiet republican grave in Northern New York [3]. Truly, perhaps the only memory left is in the name of Lake Bonaparte and the township of Diana on her shores.

-Posted by Jesse

[1] This war was linked to the greater conflict of the Napoleonic Wars. One small, peripheral, part of this mighty conflict is today remembered as the War of 1812.
[2] It was razed in 1902
[3] Granted, the title of King was appointed in both cases and he was a spectacular failure at most everything. I'm guessing that if it hadn't have been for his brother, Joseph would have shared the fate of almost all the minor Coriscan nobility and fled during the Revolution.


Linda D said...

This is a great story, Jesse! I had never heard of this before!

Norene Kowalik said...

FYI my husband and I purchased the old Bonaparte Inn on the South Shore, which has been renovated, but still maintains its old charm.

RLM said...

where is the house/fortress that he built in Natural Bridge. Is it still standing?

Jesse said...

In the book that I read on the subject, it was stated that his mansion was converted into apartments and then torn down in the 1920s (at least around then). The only remains of his occupation, besides the name of the lake, is the small stone cottage his mistress lived in and her headstone.

RCJ said...

The Joseph Bonaparte home in Natural Bridge, NY is no longer standing. There are a number of photos of it including ones that appeared on commercially produced and one of a kind real photo postcards. The home was adjacent to the Natural Bridge caverns which is still open to visitors today. It is rumored the Bonaparte home has a secret escape route that led to the underground caverns. Discussions have been held about re-building a model of the home as a tourist attraction, but nothing is underway at this point of time, June 2006. Anyone interested in lake bonaparte is referred to its conservation club web site www.lake-bonaparte.org.

Anonymous said...

How does the Benton Bonaparte House in Oxbow fit into this history?

djm said...

i grew up on the east shore of lake bonaparte near the site of the old hotel. there are four stones up on a hill above the lake that i was always told were the corners of joseph's lodge. they create a perfect rectangle of about 30' x 15'. i'm not sure if this is true, but my father was told by his father in the 1950's. our house was built in 1898, and was named the elba lodge, after the island that napoleon was exiled to, making me believe that this quadrangle behind our house has some significance. nonetheless, great story!

Anonymous said...

My family owns a plot of land that has access to Bonaparte's cave. Have been there many times and have heard many stories / legends of the cave but would like to know more.

Our family tries to keep the trail clear so that hikers have easy access to the cave.