Along the St. Lawrence River, at the northwest end of New York State , stretches an area known as the Thousand Islands. In point of fact, there are 1,864 islands here, ranging in size from a few square feet to 22 miles long. Some support nothing more than a lone tree; one is home to Boldt Castle , a haunting Gothic presence near Alexandria Bay that is the region’s premier visitor attraction.
Though the term “Thousand Islands” is often used to describe the large area reaching from Oswego  in the south to Akwesasne  in the north to Adirondack Park in the east, the islands themselves are clustered only in the center, between Cape Vincent  and Alexandria Bay . Much of the rest of the region supports farms or endless unbroken acres of low-growing forest, rivers, and lakes. Several small industrialized cities flourish as well, the largest of which is Watertown. Outside Watertown bustles Fort Drum, a 107,000-acre military training facility.
For the visitor, most of the Thousand Islands’ attractions lie along the Seaway Trail , which hugs the shores of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. From the trail, views of the river and its bypassing boat traffic are outstanding. Enormous tankers and cargo vessels slide by, on their way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. The 1959 completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway—a series of connecting channels and locks—turned the river into the longest navigable inland passage in the world. It stretches over 2,300 miles.
Because the Thousand Islands lie between the United States and Canada, the region attracts as many Canadian as American visitors. The Thousand Islands International Bridge (an extension of I-81) crosses over the St. Lawrence River near Alexandria Bay ; the Prescott-Ogdensburg Bridge connects the two cities, and the Seaway International Bridge spans the river near Massena .
Prior to the arrival of the whites, the Thousand Islands were inhabited by the Iroquois, who called the region Manitonna, or Garden of the Great Spirit. According to Iroquois legend, the islands were created by accident by the Great Spirit, who had promised all the tribes on earth a paradise if only they would stop quarrelling. The tribes promised and the Great Spirit delivered, only to have to retrieve his garden when the mortals broke their word. But as the Great Spirit was about to return to the sky, the garden slipped out of his grasp and crashed into the St. Lawrence River, breaking into a thousand pieces.
The first white man to enter the region was Jacques Cartier, who sailed down the St. Lawrence in 1635 and allegedly exclaimed, “Les milles isles!” The region maintained a close connection with France throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, when refugees fleeing France after Napoleon’s reign settled near Cape Vincent . Among them were Napoleon’s brother and sister, Joseph and Caroline Bonaparte.
The region also bore the brunt of much of the War of 1812. Fought between the United States and Britain, with the Americans hoping to drive the English out of North America once and for all, the war went largely unsupported by area residents. Many earned their livelihood by trading with England and Canada, and dubbed the three years’ worth of battles “Mr. Madison’s War.” Handsome stone fortifications still stand in Sackets Harbor  and Oswego , where major battles were fought, and historic War of 1812 plaques line the Seaway Trail.
The wealthy discovered the beauty of the Thousand Islands in the 1870s and soon built magnificent summer homes on private islands. Grand hotels went up on the shore as well, and huge steamboats plied the waters. All this opulence ended with the Depression, but evidence of it remains.