The Night They Burned Old Buffalo Down

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John Candy died of a heart attack in his sleep on March 4, 1994 while on location shooting scenes for what was to be his final film Wagons East!. Carolco Pictures released the 107 minute movie later that year. It flopped. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the last John Candy picture released. More than a year later, Canadian Bacon, featuring a cavalcade of Canadian-born actors, hit the screens. It quickly left those same screens, the farce of a Canadian invasion of Western New York too outlandish for cinema goers to believe.

Of course, in real life, America did fall victim to a Canadian invasion from across the Niagara Peninsula. Throughout college, my Canadian roommate would no doubt remind me of this fact at the most inopportune moment, but his claim that “Canada won” cost him his credibility (at least in terms of his knowledge of the stateside version of history) with his American classmates. Fortunately for him, he spent most his time with the hockey team, where his countrymen (hailing from such places as Thunder Bay and Moose Jaw) held a slight majority. That I was manager of the team only meant I had another venue – with more voices this time – to receive ribbing on all those arson fires in Buffalo the local newscasters so faithfully reported in the late 1970’s.

Ironically, nearly two hundred years ago, Canadians were, in fact, the cause of such arson in the then village of Buffalo.

In the winter of ’13 they were no doubt hungry and barely alive. There weren’t many of them as Buffalo itself was barely there. The settlement was bigger than an outpost but not quite a town much less a city. This is what it was and this is how it came to be.

After a series of fits and starts, the land we now call Western New York fell into the ownership of the Holland Land Company. We’ll talk about these folks and their history a little more in a later chapter. Right now we’ll stay focused on Buffalo. The good people representing the Holland Land Company immediately saw the point where the Buffalo River empties into Lake Erie as an ideal place to start a settlement. Unfortunately, a large sand bar blocked the river’s mouth, barely enabling rowboats to enter its waters. Surveyors were forced to look elsewhere.

At the time, the “Black Rock Ferry” was vital to the area in that it provided transportation to and from Fort Erie, then a well-established settlement. Located across the shore from Squaw Island, Blackrock itself represented the terminus of the Batavia Stage-Road, a road linking eastern New York to western New York.1 It also offered a better environment to dock and land sailing ships. The name “Blackrock,” by the way, originated from the dark limestone rock which created the perfectly natural harbor.

Joseph Ellicott saw the potential of Blackrock as a settlement which could compete with the area his Dutch proprietors sought to establish. In May 1802, Ellicott wrote to Paul Busti, then General Agent for the Holland Land Company and living in Philadelphia, asking to act under his own authority for the best interests of the Netherlanders.2 He saw that, should the State start selling the newly-acquired “mile-strip” near Blackrock, the opportunity of beginning a settlement at the mouth of the Buffalo River would be lost. Busti agreed with Ellicott and immediately dispatched Ellicott to survey the holdings of the Holland Land Company.

In 1803-04, Ellicott surveyed the proposed sight of the Village of “New Amsterdam” and quickly put the lots up for sale.3 The name “New Amsterdam” demonstrated Ellicott’s loyalty to his Dutch bosses. Indeed, a look at an 1805 map of “Buffalo Village” shows Ellicott also tried to preserve the names of the Dutch on the streets of the new village. The settlers, however, did not particularly agree with the need to honor the financial backers of the Holland Land Company. They rejected both of Ellicott’s proposals. The street names ultimately used, for the most part, remain with us to the present-day.

I had a chance to look at the geography of that 1805 map. In it, you can easily see they located the original settlement located atop a terrace far from potential flooding. These inner lots were sold for residential purposes only. Residents used the outer lots – those below the terrace – primarily for farming purposes. Being close to the shore, the land of the outer lots offered fertile soil; consequently, it was best suited for agricultural purposes. The price of the lots ranged from $25 to $250 for the inner lots and $5 to $10 an acre for outer lots.4

In 1805 the “District of Buffalo Creek” was established.5 Over the next seven years, a spurt of growth occurred. The Village witnessed the erection of inns, taverns and government buildings, as well as residences. From its very beginning, Buffalo has had two squares in its heart. Even the 1805 map contains these two squares. Government houses were located on both of these squares in the convenient hub of the city.

The Reverend Timothy Dwight, while passing through the area in 1804, wrote, “the period is not far distant when the commerce of this neighborhood will become a great national object, and involve no small part of the interest and happiness of millions.”6 Given Buffalo achieved national prominence by the end of the 19th century and became a beacon of the future heading into the 20th century, the Reverend Dwight proved to possess gifted insight. But first, the small Village would fall victim to the British.

Britain, having admitted defeat to the Americans in the Revolutionary War nearly two generations earlier, apparently never fully accepted the concept of The United States as an independent country. At war with Napoleon and the French, by the end of the first decade of the 1800s the English saw an urgent need for men to crew their ships. In a flash of brilliance, they decided what better place to go than to America. After all, these folks already knew how to speak English (granted, it wasn’t the King’s English, but it was close enough). And so, with little regard for a thing called “national sovereignty,” British warships soon began the impressment of U.S. merchant sailors by kidnapping them from their ships and forcing them to serve against their will in the Royal Navy.

Needless to say, this action did not impress the U.S. government. At the time, Peter B. Porter represented the Western New York district in Congress. He also chaired the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and, in December of 1811, he prepared a report which recommended war with the British Empire. Upon the formal declaration of War in June of the following year, Porter immediately resigned from his seat in Congress and was appointed Quarter-Master-General of New York.7 He arrived back to his home in Blackrock in time to see the British capture a schooner at the headwaters of the Buffalo River. He quickly arranged for the movement of much needed arms and ammunition to the Niagara Frontier.8 (It’s good to be the Quarter-Master-General.)

Being on the frontier in 1812, Buffalo figured prominently in the western front, particularly in the Battle of Lake Erie. Though there were skirmishes on the outskirts, no actual battle occurred within the Village until the final days of 1813. After the Americans had burned the settlement of Newark on the British side of the Niagara River, the British decided to return the favor.

On December 29th, at midnight, the British and their Indian allies beat through the resistance of some 2,000 volunteers and proceeded to burn the Village.9 Only three structures survived the burning, including the jail and Reece’s blacksmith shop, the latter on the north side of Seneca near Washington.10 Both benefited from the nature of their construction, (stone has a tendency to not burn). Amid the still smoldering black ashes and cold white snow stood a third surviving structure: the St. John house on Main Street. Mrs. St. John, a widow with two daughters, sought out a British officer and convinced him to prevent the Indians from burning her home.11 Mrs. Lovejoy, the neighbor across the street from Mrs. St. John, tried to convince the Indians herself and lost her life, making her the only woman to die in the burning of Buffalo.12

In the middle of winter, the homeless refugees to flee and lived elsewhere, including as far away as Batavia. By the following Spring, however, they had returned and rebuilt a more lasting settlement. Perhaps taking the story of the Three Little Pigs to heart, one of the first complexes built was a brickyard.13 By April of 1814, some thirty of forty houses were either already built or in the process of being built.14 In proving their resiliency, they revealed a trait which has become associated with all that is Greater Western New York.

But there’s one thing about this story I haven’t told you…

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.

1 The Buffalo Express – Extra Number, Sept. 1888, p.6
2 Ibid, p.6
3 Ibid, p.6
4 Ibid, p.6
5 Ibid, p.6
6 Ibid, p.6
7 Larned, Josephus Nelson. A History of Buffalo: Delineating the Evolution of the City, (New York: The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911), p. 23
8 Larned, Josephus Nelson. A History of Buffalo: Delineating the Evolution of the City, (New York: The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911), p. 24
9 The Buffalo Express – Extra Number, Sept. 1888, p.11
10 Smith, H. Perry, ed., History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, Volume 1: History of Erie County, (Syracuse: D. Mason & Co., 1884), p. 157
11 The Buffalo Express – Extra Number, Sept. 1888, p.11
12 Ibid p. 11
13 Ibid p. 11
14 Smith, H. Perry, ed.,  p. 159

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