Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: To The Dunkirk Dinghy By The Dawn’s Early Light

Bookmark and Share

Previous: Dunkirk, The Last Frontier

Walter Smith, from The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol I, p.355

Walter Smith was there, no doubt in front of the crowd of people riding along with Lafayette. Unlike the fawning civilians eager to not let go of the Nation’s Guest, Smith wore the uniform of a Colonel, confidently in command of the militia regiment that received Lafayette. He even had an elegant sword draped from his belt.1

Major General Elijah Risley, Jr., father of nine-year-old Hiram (and future grandfather of Olive) strode with his military staff alongside Smith. With little notice, Smith was tabbed as marshal of the day.2 Both were businessmen, not full-time soldiers. Today, or rather this night turning into early morning, they faithfully presented all the martial pomp and circumstance proper in honoring the last surviving general of the American Revolution.

But there may have been more on the mind of Walter Smith. He wasn’t just a businessman; he was the leading businessman of the town. He came to Fredonia in 1819 still a teenager. He set up a business and sold more than $20,000 in goods the first year. That was enough to buy out his partner.  Now, a mere six years later, he was well on his way to grossing $75,000.3

He put his money to good use. Whether farmer or merchant, Walter Smith was the hub that connected everyone to everything. It is attributed4 that Hiram Risley would later cite Smith for “the timely aid he gave to struggling settlers,” and describe him as “this remarkable man, who for almost half a century occupied so large a space in the business affairs of Western New York. Throughout this long career, marked with patient endeavor and noble enterprise, he always maintained a reputation for generosity, courage, energy and fidelity.”5

In a way, those 1825 profits helped subsidize Lafayette’s travels through Chautauqua County. The whole scheme came from Smith. He suggested the route Lafayette would take upon entering New York State from his travels in the Midwest. He would bear the expense of chartering the Superior to ferry Lafayette from Dunkirk to Buffalo.6 Perhaps that’s why he had the honor of being asked to serve as marshal of the day.

At twenty-five years old, Smith was already a visionary.

It would be another decade before he would, much to the derision of others, predict about the coming thing—railroads—that “the day would come when cattle fattened in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio would be brought to the New York Market.”7

It would be another year before he would move from Fredonia to Dunkirk and virtually build that city from scratch. In doing so, Walter Smith would become “at once the controlling power in Dunkirk, and soon the most influential, public spirited and capable business man in the county.”8

Oddly, though, for all his popularity and success, and unlike many of his peers, Smith never sought higher office. He only served in one official position: that of “path master.”9 This was one of the lowest state positions but most important at the time of settlement. The job of the path master was to make the new roads for all those incoming settlers.

Could it be that’s what Smith considered as he rode to Dunkirk? Sure, the road they traveled was “improved and prepared for the occasion.”10 Still, if it was to become Central Avenue, it left much to be desired. The desolate road was still in a dense forest with few if any homes.

The dawning sun barely touched that forest as the parade approached the bay. The air was clear and calm. Soon, Smith and Risley and all the others could see the pier. On it stood the exuberant Buffalo committee, ready to accept the baton in the form of Lafayette.11

The Superior stood about a mile offshore. A small dinghy was at the ready to take the General to the famous steamship. Now, put yourself in Lafayette’s shoes. He just spent an all-nighter in a carriage making two stops where the good citizens of Westfield and Fredonia had feted him with huge frontier parties. Was he tired? What do you think?

The last thing he probably wanted was a long, drawn-out, formal exchange on the pier. The two committees obliged. They offered each other a “mutual exchange of civilities”12 then led the General and his party to the small boat. And with that, Lafayette rowed away from shore. The crowd, as they say, roared.

That wasn’t the only thing that roared. As the dinghy pushed off, the Superior offered a 24-gun salute. The militia on shore answered the same with a feu de joie, their rifles firing in rapid succession along their line.13

Through it all, the band played on, courtesy of Colonel Abell’s regiment.14 Close your eyes for a moment and imagine the atmosphere in Dunkirk Bay that fresh summer-like morning as you face the Superior. Lafayette grows increasingly smaller with each stroke of the oar. You hear the soft sounds of Lake Erie’s waves caressing the pier around you. The muffled sounds of the rifles echo from the forest wall behind you. To your delight, the music wraps it all up in an audio bow.

If you’re smiling at the contentment this thought evokes, you are not alone. Levasseur wrote in his journal they arrived on board the Superior “to the sound of music, the delightful harmony of which accorded deliciously with the beauty of the morning, and the romantic aspect of the bay in which we were.”15

And Levasseur was not alone, either. For, accompanying Lafayette and the Buffalo committee was a contingent from the Chautauqua committee, including Walter Smith and Major General Elijah Risley, Jr.

Next Week: Rebuilt Buffalo

1 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County – Vol I, Chautauqua History Company, Jamestown, 1904, p.401
2 “LaFayette in Fredonia,” Fredonia Censor, August 21, 1872, pp 1-2
3 History of Chautauqua County New York and Its People-Vol. 1, John P. Downs & Fenwick Y. Hedley, American Historical Society, 1921, p.146
4 “In Memoriam—Walter Smith,” Fredonia Censor, September 30, 1874, pp 3
5 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol II, Chautauqua History Company, Jamestown, 1904, p.494-496
6 Ibid., p. 432
7 Ibid., p. 435
8 Edson, Obed, Historian, History of Chautauqua County New York, Georgia Drew Merrill, Editor, W.A Fergusson & Co, Boston, Mass, 1894 p.522
9 Ibid., p.524
10 The Centennial History of Chautauqua County Vol II, p.432
11 “LaFayette in Fredonia”
12 “The Progress of La Fayette,” Albany Argus, Tuesday, June 14, 1825, p.2
13 “Arrival of Gen. La Fayette,” Fredonia Censor, Wednesday, June 15, 1825, pp.2&3
14 “LaFayette in Fredonia”
15 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Volume II, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, Levasseur, p.186


  1. […] What waited for Lafayette in its still promising harbor? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “To The Dunkirk Dinghy By The Dawn’s Early Light,” to see how, no matter how crude the frontier, pomp and circumstance shall not be […]

Speak Your Mind


You cannot copy content of this page

Skip to content