Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Rebuilt Buffalo

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Taylor, C.B., A Centennial History of the United States, 1876, p305

Cyrenius Chapin stood where no sane man dare stand. He knew exactly what he was doing. He also knew it was all McClure’s fault.

Nonetheless, there he was. He measured his pace as he approached the British line. Despite the noise and excitement about him, he could hear his feet crunch through the snow. Or maybe he imagined his cold ears picking up the sound.

Certainly, he could feel his feet crush the white blanket as he made his way up Schimmelpenninck Avenue (it didn’t get the name Niagara Street until July 12, 18261). The excitement of the night and now early morning kept his blood flowing to his extremities. His medical training taught him that would help prevent the onset of frostbite.

Cyrenius fully understood the consequences of his actions. With the cannon behind him blown off its makeshift perch by an overzealous (and perhaps inexpert) volunteer squad, parley represented the best hope to offer the woman and children, as well as the militia, time to escape. If he were lucky, he might just save the village he helped build.2

The good doctor first came to the mouth of Buffalo Creek in 1801. He put in a bid for the whole lot to Joseph Ellicott, the local agent for the Holland Land Purchase. Chapin promised “forty respectable citizens that are men of good property have signed articles of agreement to take a township if it can be purchased.”3 Ellicott, noting that the lands had not yet been surveyed, declined the offer.4

Two years later, after the Holland Company completed its survey, on October 11, 1803, Chapin purchased Lot No. 41, Township 11, 8th Range. He paid $346.50 for the ninety acres, making Cyrenius Chapin one of the first permanent settlers in what would become the City of Buffalo.5

Chapin would soon develop a life-long friendship with Louis Stephen Le Couteulx, who came to Buffalo in 1804. His wife, Madame Le Couteulx was a niece of General Touzard, who accompanied General Lafayette during the Revolutionary War (and lost an arm as a result). Le Couteulx would eventually become the first clerk of Niagara County.6

That same year, Yale President Timothy Dwight traveled to Buffalo. He described the place as “about twenty indifferent houses.” As far as the people he met there, Dwight saw them as “a casual collection of adventurers; and have the usual character of such adventurers, thus collected, when remote from regular society, retaining but little sense of government or religion.”7

Did that description also apply to Cyrenius Chapin? In the ensuing decade, he had built a home, brought his family over and set up a successful medical practice in both Buffalo and Fort Erie on the Canadian side.8 In April of 1813, Chapin (along with Eli Hart, Zenas W. Barker, Ebenezer Walden, and Oliver Forward) was nominated by act of legislature to serves as one of the trustees for the newly incorporated Village of Buffalo.9

He even helped build the first school in Buffalo.10 By 1811, it was among the fewer than one hundred buildings in Buffalo. Set on the corner of Pearl and Swan Streets, the schoolhouse also served the nearly 500 residents as a  town hall, a church (for all denominations), and for any other public purpose.11

And the last thing Dr. Chapin wanted was to see the British burn that school, or any other building, in retaliation for General George McClure’s callous misdeeds in Newark (today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake). The American press vilified McClure’s uncalled for burning of the innocent town of 100 homes.

Still, the Tories felt compelled to punish, and punish they did. They had already captured Fort Niagara. They had already burned and massacred every settlement along the Niagara River. Buffalo was their last stop. It didn’t help that McClure abandoned the Niagara frontier for safer confines in the interior of New York State.

He left in a huff, chased out by the citizens of Buffalo after arresting and trying to imprison Chapin on charges of “mutiny if not treason,” calling the Buffalonian an unprincipled disorganizer.”12

Asa Ransom, who lost a slander suit against Cyrenius Chapin prior to the start of hostilities,13 would later come to the doctor’s defense. Ransom testified McClure and Chapin had “quarrelled violently about the burning of Newark and that he believed that animosity continued to exist.”  In his official deposition, Ransom said the notorious McClure, when asked to confront the British in Buffalo, said “I will stay and defend you if the inhabitants will arrest and bind that damned rascal (Chapin) and bring him to me; if they will not do that they may all be destroyed and I don’t care how soon.”14

McClure made his feelings formal when he wrote to Governor Tompkins, “I this day ordered Colonel Chapin into confinement for treason and mutiny. There is not a greater rascal exists than Chapin, and he is supported by a pack of tories and enemies to our Government. Such is (sic) the men of Buffalo. They don’t deserve protection.”15

The British themselves were not unfamiliar with the rascally Doctor. They had captured him once already, in the summer of 1813. While transporting him by boat, he rallied the other prisoners and, unarmed, wrestled control of the boat, capturing his guards in the process. He made his escape to Fort Niagara with 16 prisoners of his own as well as two boats.16 The event was widely covered in the national press.17

So, as the erect, six-foot tall man walked towards his enemy, he knew what he was doing, His thin face featured arching eyebrows, piercing eyes, and a dominant Roman nose.18 His dignified, firm, military bearing halted the British advance. He was about to fulfill McClure’s wish that he be “taken by the enemy.”19

It tells you something about the nature of the battle that, despite Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon Drummond’s contention that Chapin “considerably annoyed our troops with round and grape shot from a six -pounder,” the British respected the Doctor’s “self- constituted flag of truce.”20 For a moment, all stopped, and it appeared Buffalo would be spared.

However, no sooner had the truce been agreed to than the burning began. It’s not clear if there was ever any intent on the part of the British to spare Buffalo. In a January 1814 proclamation, Sir George Prevost, Governor-in-Chief of British North America, declared, “the opportunity of punishment has occurred, and a full measure of retribution has taken place.” Still, he also stated he had every intention of “pursuing no further a system of warfare so revolting to his own feelings, and so little congenial to the British character.”21

That being said, eight months later the British would burn Washington, D.C.

As for Chapin, Lieutenant-General Drummond reported “the famous Dr. or Colonel Chapin, whom, in consequence of his former escape, I have sent off towards Quebec by an officer and two dragoons.”22 The Canadian papers echoed these sentiments.23 For them, the capture of Cyrenius Chapin was a prize worth repeating.

Chapin would be held for nine months and eventually return to Buffalo. Among the many things he’d do was help create the Niagara County Agricultural Society. He was its first president, and as such, presided over its Fair in 1820.24 Today we recognize that event as the first ever “Erie County Fair” (because, in 1820, there was no Erie County and Buffalo was part of Niagara County). The U.S. Census counted more than 2,000 people living in Buffalo/Black Rock/Tonnewanta Buffalo (up from 1,500 in 1810).25 The village also surpassed 150 dwellings in 1820, also surpassing its pre-war level.26

Buffalo, however, still had a problem. It was a problem even Timothy Dwight noticed. He noted that Buffalo Creek, while “a considerable mill-stream,” had a considerable obstacle. “A bar at the mouth prevents all vessels, larger than boats, from ascending its waters.”27

Solving that problem would result in a future for Buffalo that Chapin (and others) dreamed of.

And, at noon on Saturday, June 4, 1825, General Lafayette would find himself heading straight toward it.

Next Week: Regal Reception In Buffalo’s Blossoming Queen City

1 “Resolution,” Buffalo Emporium and General Advertiser, Saturday, July 22, 1826, p.3
2 Ketchum, William, History of Buffalo Vol II, Rockwell, Baker & Hill, Buffalo, NY, 1864, p. 166
3 Turner, Orsamus, Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Jewett, Thomas & Co., 1849, p. 452-453
4 Ketchum, p. 144
5 Ibid., p. 154
6 Extra Number Issued as a Souvenir of the International Industrial Fair Paper Sept. 4-14, 1888, Buffalo Express, p. 8
7 Dwight, Timothy, Travels in New England and New York Vol. IV, Willams Baynes and Son, London, 1823, pp.56-58
8 Ketchum, p. 157
9 Sheldon, James, The life and public services of Oliver Forward, read before the Buffalo historical society, January 25, 1875
10 Extra Number, p. 6
11 Sheldon, p. 3
12 Cruikshank, Lt-Col. E., The Documentary History of the Campaigns Upon The Niagara Frontier in 1812-4, Vol IX, December 1813 to May, 1814, The Lundy’s Lan Historical Society, Tribune Office, Welland, 1908, p. 46
13 Buffalo Gazette, Wednesday, February 5, 1812, p.3
14 Cruikshank, p. 123
15 Ibid., p. 26
16 Fay, H.A., Collection of the Official Accounts in Detail of All the Battles Fought by Sea and Lan, Between the Navy and Army of the United States, and the Navy and Army of Great Britian, During the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15., E. Conrad, New York, 1817, p.114
17 Chapin’s letter to Gen. Dearborn appeared (at least) in the Friday, August 6, 1813 editions of The Raliegh Minerva, p. 2 col. 2, the War Journal, p.4, and the Martinsburg Gazette, (WV), p.3
18 Miner, Julius, Buffalo Medical and Surgical Journal, Vol. VIII, Warren, Johnson & Co., 1869, p.121
19 Cruikshank, p. 122
20 Ibid., p. 120
21 Brackenridge, H.M., History of the Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, Cuming & Jewitt, Baltimore, 1818, p. 265
22 Cruikshank, p. 67
23 Kingston Gazette, Wednesday, January 5, 1814
24 Hill, Henry Wayland, Municipality of Buffalo New York A History 1720-1923, Volume I, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, New York, 1923, p.162
25 Sheldon, p. 3
26 Dwight, p. 57
27 Ibid., p. 56

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