Clayton is a small village situated on the St. Lawrence River at the mouth of French Creek, within the Town of Clayton, Jefferson County, New York. Clayton was once called Weteringhera-Guentere, an Indian name for “Fallen Fort”. In 1823 it was named Cornelia, but in 1831 it was changed to Clayton in honor of John M. Clayton, a United States Senator from Delaware and a member of the Whig party. At that time the Whig party was very influential on the local political scene.
By 1835 there were 426 people in the village with 93 buildings. The village was incorporated on April 17, 1872.
During the War of 1812 it was in this area that a conflict broke out between the British ships and American Army troops led by General Wilkinson under General Jacob Brown's command on November 1, 1813. This conflict resulted in the loss of many British soldiers and Americans, 3 killed and 2 wounded. The British miscalculated their target and shot too high. Later the 32 pound cannon balls were plowed up on the Kline farm, which is now incorporated into the village of Clayton.
Timber was the first major industry in Clayton. Being close to the St. Lawrence River made it very easy to float logs to Montreal and other areas where the logs were cut into lumber.
In the 1870’s the railroad came to the North Country and to Clayton. Shipbuilding was another important industry in early Clayton. One of the major shipyards was owned by Captain Simon G. Johnston and another was Smith & Merick. The St. Lawrence Skiff, which was used as a fishing guide boat, was first built in Clayton around 1868. Then came the schooners and also steamships that were to sail the Great Lakes. Many tradesmen were drawn to Clayton, where these ships were not only built but also repaired and maintained.
Captain Simon G. Johnston’s home, was built in 1880, has been listed on the State and National Registries of Historic Places. Where his shipyard was located is now the present site of the town hall. His son, Captain Henry S. Johnston, was a lake Captain and the author of a book of his impressions of the islands titled “Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence”.
In 1873 the railroad started bringing in an influx of people who were looking to get away from the bigger cities. A place to relax and vacation, and tourism became a large part of the area. Today you can find small shops, restaurants, marinas, and museums in Clayton. You can learn more on the history of Clayton at the Thousand Islands Museum.