War of 1812 saw tension, refugees in Genesee County

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The Daily News

  • May 26, 2012
  • By Susan L. Conklin Genesee County Historian 
  • Courtesy of Genesee County History DepartmentA woodcut depicts the burning of Buffalo during the War of 1812. Refugees from what was then a village found a safe haven in Batavia.

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  • EDITOR’S NOTE:The preceding history of the War of 1812 was excerpted from a presentation that Genesee County Historian Sue Conklin will be making June 14 during a conference of historians, academics and researchers at Niagara University.In 1811, while Canada supplied reinforcements to the Niagara River area, the United States made no comparable effort to strengthen its undermanned Fort Niagara. However, in 1809 Joseph Ellicott, resident-agent for the Holland Land Company, had built a temporary arsenal in Batavia and Daniel D. Tompkins, the governor of New York State, agreed to supply weapons to improve the defense west of the Genesee River.

    In 1812, Western New York was composed of five counties; in the south, Allegany, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and in the north Genesee (which included all of Orleans, Wyoming and the western sections of Livingston and Monroe) and Niagara (which included Erie). On June 18, 1812, the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain. The causes of the war included trade tensions, British support for Indian raids and U.S. territory expansion. News of this declaration caused great concern and dread among the settlers of Western New York. All able-bodied men were summoned to fight and join the militia, leaving only a few behind to manage the crops. Seneca warriors from the Tonawanda Reservation also volunteered and provided support to the local militia.

    For a year and a half there had been fighting along the Niagara River and in the later part of 1813 both sides of the river were controlled by American troops. On Dec. 10, 1813, Gen. George McClure, who had been left in charge of the garrison at Fort George, on the Canadian side, attacked the Canadian Village of Newark (renamed Niagara) which was 1 mile north of the fort. The American forces burned 80 buildings leaving some 400 women and children homeless. The justification for the attack was to eliminate any hope for wintering in the vicinity of Fort George.

    The British gathered a large force to avenge this destruction and burned settlements along the Niagara River, including Youngstown, Lewiston, Manchester, Schlosser and surrounding farms. All the flourishing villages and settlements on the Niagara River north of Buffalo were laid to ashes. More than 200 houses were destroyed and the property owners reduced to poverty. Fort Niagara fell to the British on Dece. 19, 1813, and remained in their possession until the end of the war. The British campaign of retribution concluded Dec. 30, 1813, with the burning of almost every building in Buffalo.

    According the Gazetteer and Biographical Records for Genesee County: “We (in Pavilion) were told that when an engagement was taking place at Buffalo or Fort Erie, every peal of cannon could be heard and it was common for dishes to be jarred by the concussions.”

    The British invasion of Western New York in the middle of winter caused great damage and hardship. From Joseph Ellicott: “… the burning of every building in the Village of Buffalo and massacre not only of men but women and children filled the inhabitants of the two Counties of Genesee and Niagara with terror and dismay.”

    In a petition to Albany on behalf of the refugees the following was described: “Niagara County and that part of Genesee which lies west of Batavia are completely depopulated. All the settlements in a section of country forty miles square and which contained more than twelve thousand souls are effectually broken up. Our roads are filled with people, many of whom have been reduced from a state of competency and good prospects to the degree of want and sorrow…”

    From Tuner’s Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase: “Batavia became the headquarters, the final rallying point, of small remnants of an army, a halting place for the fleeing homeless of the frontier. The most valuable effects of the Holland Land Office were taken beyond the Genesee River, the home of Joseph Ellicott was converted into quarters for army officers and his office a hospital; private homes, barns and sheds were occupied; families that were separated in the hasty departure from Buffalo became united there”.

    Batavia also has the distinct honor of providing Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott, with shelter while he recovered from serious wounds received in the July 25, 1814, battle at Lundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls. In December 1814 the U.S. Army on the Niagara Frontier succeeded in protecting Western New York and gained victories before the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent.

    For nearly 200 years the United States and Canada have shared the longest border in peace between two countries. The Peace Garden in Batavia is part of the Bicentennial Peace Garden Trail and is a fitting reminder to us all of the peace we have enjoyed with our Canadian neighbors.

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