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Mysterious America

The Legend of Bonapartes Cave

Missing jewels, exiled European royalty, old bones, and a lakeside cave make this unassuming spot one of Upstate New York’s most enduring mysteries.

Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844), older brother of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, saw his fortunes rise and fall with his more famous brother. He once reigned as monarch over two kingdoms, amassing a small fortune before Napoleon’s downfall. How did a lake in northern New York come to be named after him?

In 1794, Joseph, a French lawyer and diplomat, married Marie-Julie Clary, and in 1806 Napoleon crowned him King of Naples. During the ill-fated French occupation of Spain, he reigned as King of Spain and the Indies. After Napoleon’s defeat and exile in 1814, Joseph fled to Switzerland with a trove of diamonds and jewels, but made plans to leave Europe. Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 sealed his fate, and Joseph landed in America in August 1815 under the assumed name “Count de Survilliers”.

James Le Ray de Chaumont, son of a prominent French supporter of American independence, had purchased large tracts of land in northern New York and the Delaware Valley, where many French aristocrats had fled after the French Revolution. Using his stolen wealth, Joseph purchased land along the Black River in Upstate New York from James Le Ray. He named the lake at the heart of his Black River property Diana, but it would come to be known as Lake Bonaparte.

Joseph was afraid his European enemies would send assassins to track him down in America, so he covered his home in Natural Bridge, New York with sheet iron to make it bullet proof and allegedly dug tunnels from his house leading to the Natural Bridge caverns. He built another home, called the Hermitage, at the shore of Lake Bonaparte in 1828. This house no longer survives, but it must have been impressive. There he hosted parties with his American mistress, Annette Savage.

There are many places to hide in the wilderness of New York’s North Country, so it seems strange for stories to circulate about a small cave on the shore of a pond east of Lake Bonaparte. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, however, after Joseph Bonaparte’s family fled Europe “It is said that they eluded hired assassins by hiding out in the rocky ledges and small caves on the northwest edge of what is today known as Green Pond.”

That small cave at the edge of Green Pond became known as Bonaparte’s Cave, which gave its name to the 1,435-acre Bonaparte’s Cave State Forest. There is a tragic legend associated with this cave. According to The Bonapartes in America (1939) by Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance, in 1830 a friend of Joseph fell in love with a French girl and the two absconded to enjoy a romantic boat ride on Green Pond. They never returned.

Years later, hunters discovered two skeletons inside the cave with a gold coin bearing the image of Napoleon. This and a few other artifacts were enough to identify them as the ill-fated lovers. A rumor persisted that the couple committed suicide there, though it is just as likely they drowned and their bodies were dragged into the cave by a hungry panther or bear.

Joseph himself only spent a few summers in northern New York before he sold his property in 1835, so stories of the former monarch hiding out at Green Pond probably aren’t true. Can the same be said for skeletons of star-crossed lovers? This more than 180-year-old tale remains one of the North Country’s most enduring mysteries.

Bonapartes Cave State Forest is located northwest of Harrisville and the West Branch Oswegatchie River in Lewis County, New York. From NY State Route 3, Take North Shore Road west to Green Pond. Bonapartes Cave is located along the northwest shore of Green Pond, at approximate GPS coordinates 44.159147, -75.368250. There is a parking area and trail, but this will not take you to the cave. To get to the cave, you have to take an unmarked trail off Bonaparte Road farther west. Exercise caution, since there is nowhere to park at this location.

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