Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Dunkirk, The Last Frontier

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Previous: Fast Fredonia Frenzy

It was three o’clock in the morning when Lafayette and his travel partners left Fredonia. They weren’t alone. A horde of enthusiastic citizens accompanied the nation’s guest to the Superior, the famous Great Lakes steamer that had been waiting offshore in the Dunkirk harbor from the previous day.

The late (or early) hour had no impact on the escort. They gladly trudged through the dew and mud. It would be something they would remember for the rest of their lives. There they were. Side by side with the Revolutionary War hero, the friend of George Washington, an icon they could only dream of meeting.

After all, who were they, these pioneers of Western New York? Sure, a few were surviving veterans of the War for Independence. The rest were their children and grandchildren. They worked hard each day not just to survive, but to build a community. In doing so, they would also build a nation.

Just like so many others living on the edge of the nation’s frontier.

That General Lafayette would honor them by spending even a few minutes with these citizens of the nascent Chautauqua County meant the world to them. They just couldn’t let the moment go.

And they didn’t.

They sloshed their way through the sludge with the General on the barely beaten path to Dunkirk.

But which path did they take?

To answer that question, you need to answer this question “What did Dunkirk look like in 1825?”

Unlike Barcelona at the mouth of Chautauqua Creek, Dunkirk had a less auspicious beginning. The French no doubt sailed by it. As stated before, they bypassed Dunkirk’s bay, preferring to first explore the mouth of Chautauqua Creek (which led to the creation of Portage Road). Ultimately, they chose Presque Isle (today’s Erie, Pa,) as their harbor site.1

Still, while not “harbor” material, the cove no doubt offered protection for sailors looking to ride out a storm or otherwise find a safe port.2 The bay had one big problem: it offered no stream to travel inland. Settlers instead looked just to the south to take advantage of Canadaway creek. That’s the creek that leads to Fredonia.

Worse. The bay didn’t offer much of a landing spot. While the early nineteenth century saw small villages like Fredonia and Westfield grow at the intersection of the Buffalo and Erie Road, the future city of Dunkirk “remained covered by a dense and unbroken forest.”3

You can get an idea if you consider how Canadaway creek got its name. According to famed Rochester historian Lewis Morgan, it’s derived from the Seneca word “Gä-na’ -da-wa-o.” Translated, it means “Running through the hemlocks.”4 That’s a lot of trees.

How bad was it? Heman Ely migrated to Dunkirk with his wife Emma in February 1810. They traveled from Buffalo over the lake because, as you might expect, the ice was a lot smoother than the Buffalo and Erie Road. They stuck it out as long as they could, but decided to move to Portland in the spring of 1816.5

Such was the disappointment of Dunkirk. After having lost its bid to become the western terminus of the Erie Canal, interest in the area dropped off. By 1825, the struggling settlement had only 50 families living by the bay.6 One of those was John Brigham, who first arrived in 1808. He built a road. It’s called—wait for it—“Brigham Road.” It was the second road from Dunkirk to Fredonia. The first snaked along Canadaway creek. The third one has had many names. Today we call it Central Avenue.7

Central Avenue was a lonely road. In 1816, it was “merely a path marked by blazed trees, with the underbrush cut out.”8 Four years later in 1820 it was still “a continuous forest from Third Street to Fredonia.9 In the summer of 1823, Mary Ann Drake taught in one of the few log houses on it.10

Of all the places Lafayette would visit in the Greater Western New York Region, Dunkirk most retained the character of the frontier. In a few months, the Erie Canal would open. With that would come an influx of settlers, a different breed of people.

The people Lafayette would see in Dunkirk represented the last of the true pioneers. They were the frontiersmen that made the “Niagara Frontier” America’s first frontier. They came most directly from nearby settlements of New York and Pennsylvania. After the canal opened, settlers were wealthier (or at least the less poor) and better suited for the transition from “frontierland” to “farmland.”11

So, let’s return to the question of which road Lafayette took from Fredonia to the harbor at Dunkirk. We know two things about it. First, it was “improved and prepared for the occasion.” This should have helped because the procession of military and civilians in carriages, on horseback, and on foot stretched a mile long.12

Second, the route was described as being “three miles to the shore of the lake.”13

Do these clues give us enough evidence to determine the road travelled on that early morning of June 4, 1825. Mapquest tells us the Central Avenue route—the shortest route—measures 3.5 miles. The Brigham Road comes in a little longer at 4.2 miles. The path down Canadaway creek (today’s Temple Street) is even longer.

Whatever the road taken, Lafayette’s carriage was not alone.

Next Week: To The Dunkirk Dinghy By The Dawn’s Early Light

1 Edson, Obed, Historian, History of Chautauqua County New York, Georgia Drew Merrill, Editor, W.A Fergusson & Co, Boston, Mass, 1894 p.512
2 Ibid, p.513
3 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol I, Chautauqua History Company, Jamestown, 1904, p.80
4 Morgan, Lewis H., League of the Ho-de-no sau-nee or Iroquois, Human Relations Area Files, 1854 (reprint), p.128
5 Taylor, H.C., Historical Sketches of the Town of Portland, W. McKinstry & Son, Printers, Fredonia, NY 1873 p.336
6 Edson, p.523
7 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol II, Chautauqua History Company, Jamestown, 1904, p.422
8 Ibid., p.422
9 Ibid., p.430
10 Taylor, p.515
11 History of Chautauqua County New York and Its People-Vol. 1, John P. Downs & Fenwick Y. Hedley, American Historical Society, 1921, p. 42
12 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol II, p.432
13 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol I, p.461
14 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County, Chautauqua History Company, Jamestown, 1904  p.274
15 History of Chautauqua County New York and Its People-Vol. 1, John P. Downs & Fenwick Y. Hedley, American Historical Society, 1921, p. 71
16 Clark, James, A., The chronological history of the petroleum and natural gas industries, Clark Book Co., Houston, 1963, p. 15
17 Ibid, p.16
18 “Fredonia’s Part In History Of Gas Business Is Reviewed By Distributing Company’s Writer,” Dunkirk Evening Observer, Thursday, October 4, 1945, p.10
19 “Fortune Hunters Still Drilling For Natural Gas In NY Areas,” Star-Gazette (Elmira), Friday, February 19, 1965, p.3
20 Shepard, Douglas H., “One Park Place,” 2005, [retrieved May 6, 2024]
21 Fredonia Censor, Wednesday, August 31, 1825, p.2
22 Fredonia Censor, Wednesday, November 30, 1825 p.3
23 Fredonia Censor, Wednesday, November 26, 1826 p.3
24 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Volume I, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 166

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