Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Competing Memories Turn Lafayette’s Rochester Visit From History To Mystery

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Previous: Remembering Silvius Hoard

1832 Map of Rochester from a correct survey, Gill, Valentine; Child, Jonathan;
Morin, John F., KEY: FB (green) Fitzhugh St. Basin; AQDT (yellow) Aquaduct; GB (purple) Gilbert’s Basin; HT (Blue) Hoard’s Tavern (marker location); CMH (red) Christopher’s Mansion House. Source, Library of Congress, LOC Control No. 2003623826

You’ve heard the expression “the sands of time,” right? Well, sometimes the expression reads better as “the sandblaster of time.” The march of time has a way of eroding all in its past, leaving no trace behind. Spoiler Alert: Nearly every single landmark you are about to read of here no longer exists.

Worse, those same sands often erode memories as well. We often remember what we think is true, even if it’s not. That’s why if you ask two people who witnessed the same event, you’ll often get two different descriptions of what happened. At least two. Because if you ask the same person a week later to describe what happened, there’s no guarantee the story will remain the same.

These are the challenges when recounting history. That’s why it’s better to rely on primary witnesses (the people who were actually there). It’s even better to rely on multiple primary witnesses, because you can “average” their stories to get a more reliable understanding of what really happened. Finally, it’s best you hear from these primary witnesses immediately after the event occurs. That way the memory is freshest and less prone to error.

Such are the issues with retelling the tale of Lafayette’s visit to Rochester on Tuesday, June 7, 1825. Everything is gone and even firsthand witnesses, years later, tell conflicting Continue Reading “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Competing Memories Turn Lafayette’s Rochester Visit From History To Mystery”

Lafayette’s Farewell Tour: Fort Niagara And The Man-Made Wonder Of Lockport

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Previous: Riding The Ridge (Road)

The Erie Canal overtakes the Niagara Escarpment at the Five Flights in Lockport. Source: History of Niagara County, Sanford & Co, New York, p.164

Monday, June 6, 1825, began bright and early all across Niagara County. Excitement, anticipation, and the coming relief following a job well done swirled in the mnds of many. For the young, it presented a chance to build memories that would last a lifetime (whether or not they are true). For the old, the day meant the culmination of a grand adventure in coordination, dedication, and ultimately respect for an older generation. For that older generation, their thoughts delighted in remembering the glories of their past.

So, yes, Monday, June 6, 1825, began bright and early.

At Fort Niagara, Major Alexander Ramsay Thompson, with his officers and their wives, rose early to prepare for a proper breakfast banquet.

In the town of Cambria on the Ridge road, William Howell woke early to make sure everything in his tavern was in order for the meeting of the two local committees escorting Lafayette.

Just south of Howell, John Gould readied his Red Tavern for yet another meeting of escorts.

Lockport was abuzz. Like many other small villages on Lafayette’s itinerary, it seemed like the entire population of 3,007 people were part of the set-up committee. Alfred Barritt woke up knowing he’d be the one to lead his brothers and companions in ceremonies that were destined to rank as the biggest in their lives. Col. Asher B. Saxton, the rugged Revolutionary War veteran, groomed his horse for the day’s long ride which he would lead. Stephen Van Rensselaer got up knowing it was now his turn to perform the same task fellow canal commissioner William C. Bouck performed at Black Rock.

Finally, in Lewiston, the impetus for all these early risers himself rose early. Thomas Kelsey made sure of that, although he probably didn’t have to. Lafayette and his crew were well accustomed to the rigors of their ambitious schedule.

At 5 o’clock in the morning, General Lafayette bid adieu to Kelsey’s Tavern. He was quickly on his way to breakfast with Major Thompson (or “Thomson,” as Lavasseur incorrectly calls him). The major commanded the garrison at Fort Niagara, having been placed there only a month before. He and his men had been moving from frontier fort to frontier fort the past year. Their mission: repair old forts or establish new forts.1 They were the janitors of the army and they were about to meet a military legend.

In a way, it was a homecoming for Lafayette.

The Fort Niagara Lafayette would soon visit represented the third attempt by New France to build a fortress at the mouth of the Niagara River. The French meant to use the edifice to protect their interests on both the River and Lake Ontario. It didn’t quite work out for them, but the site of his countrymen’s handicraft must have pleased Lafayette.

Thompson and his officers met Lafayette’s party in advance of the Fort itself. As they entered the compound, the troops stationed there greeted them with an 18-gun salute from the long eighteens. Guests and hosts then sat down for breakfast.2 Officers, their wives assisting, provided the entertainment. But Lafayette was on the clock and he had to cut his visit short.3 After a quick view of the lake from the lighthouse, it was back on the road. By 10 o’clock he was on his way to Lockport.4

Some reports suggest Parkhurst Whitney provided his carriage for the ride to Lockport, with his ten-year-old son Solon following on his pony.5 As these reports came out years after the event and don’t appear in any contemporary reporting, we’ll leave it to the reader to decide if they can be taken at face value. That being said, there was a “Whitney” listed in the June 6, 1825 meeting minutes for the Ames Royal Arch Chapter’s meeting with Lafayette in Lockport.6

Of course, that might have been “Warham Whitney” from Rochester, who became a member of Hamilton Royal Arch Mason, number 62 on February 1, 1819.7 Warham Whitney served two terms as a trustee of the Village of Rochester8 prior to Lafayette’s visit and may very well have been part of the delegation sent to convey the General from Lockport to Rochester.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Based on what you know about Western New York topography, note how Levasseur described what happened next. “On a height near Lockport we met a troop of from seventy to eighty citizens on horseback…”9 That “height” refers to the “Ridge” upon which they travelled. The stop was at William Howell’s Tavern and the horsemen were led there by none other than Col. Asher B. Saxton.

It’s at Howell’s Tavern that we find another of these “oh, by the way” stories involving then young people only telling the story in their older years. This one involves Howell’s daughter Harriet. Said to be between 10-12 at the time of Lafayette’s visit, the story goes the General took a liking to her and while all the other men sated themselves with adult beverages, he asked young Harriet to share her lemonade with him.10

Harriet may have told this story a time or two, but when she gave her family’s migration story to Sanford & Co for its 1878 edition of the History of Niagara County, there was no mention of lemonade. Or Lafayette for that matter. In fact, it said she was sixty-nine years old, meaning (if she was that age in 1878), she would have been born in 1809. When Lafayette visited in 1825, she would have been sweet sixteen. Furthermore, the story as printed in that volume says she was married in December 1824 – before Lafayette’s visit.11 You do the math. It kind of makes you wonder if there really was lemonade that day.

Almost immediately after leaving Howell’s Tavern the convoy left the Ridge road, heading south on what is today Route 425. After hanging left on Lower Mountain Road, they made a quick stop at Gould’s Red Tavern. There “old people remember seeing Lafayette standing in the west room, greeted by all ages and both sexes, the landlord’s animated bearing showing his appreciation of being honored by so distinguished a guest.”12

From there, it was a straight shot into the Village of Lockport. As they entered the village, before them loomed an ominous rock wall. Seemingly impenetrable, it screamed “Halt!” to all those who graced its presence. This was the famed Niagara Escarpment. It stood as the greatest challenge to the engineers building the Erie Canal.

But it was far from impenetrable.

The eyes of French visitors continued to gaze in awe at this natural edifice. Suddenly, a tremendous explosion occurred in the rocks above them. Shattered fragments of the Niagara Escarpment rained down from the ensuing cloud of dust. The workmen had set up a series of powder-infused explosives that all ignited at the same time. This, together with the constant sound of the hatchet and the hammer, spoke to the industriousness of this young community.13

Levasseur describes what immediately followed this display of pyrotechnics:

“Our carriages stopped opposite to an arch of green branches, and General Lafayette was conducted to a platform, where he had the satisfaction of being welcomed by one of his old fellow soldiers, the venerable Stephen Van Rensselaer, now president of the board of canal commissioners. After having been officially presented to the deputation from Monroe county, as well as to a great number of citizens, we sat down to a public dinner, presided over by Colonel Asher Saxton, at the end of which the general, induced by the feelings awakened in him by the sight of so many wonders, gave the following toast: “To Lockport and the county of Niagara—they contain the greatest wonders of art and nature, prodigies only to be surpassed by those of liberty and equal rights.”14

The dinner occurred at the Washington House on the corner of Main and Transit. Before they could leave Lockport, General Lafayette, his son, and Levasseur were hosted by the Ames Chapter No. 88 Royal Arch Masons in their Masonic Temple. Although that event was held in private, the minutes of that meeting became public decades later. Here they are:

“An extra communication of Ames Chapter, No. 88, was held at the Masonic Hall in Lockport on the 6th June, A. L. *5825, pursuant to special notice to the companions.
Present—Companions Alfred Barritt, M.E.W.P.; H. Gardner, King; S. Scoville, Scribe; Ladd, Tyler, P.T., and Companions Ganson, Bounds, Brown, Draper, Pomeroy, Judd, Parks, Gooding, Maynard, Danone, Taylor, Wright, Turner, Shepard, Haigh, and Haines, and visiting Companions Rochester, Weed, Whitney, Cobb, Armstrong, and Whitmore, and opened in the Royal Arch degree for the dispatch of business.
Resolved. That a committee be appointed to introduce our worthy friend and companion, Gen. La Fayette, whereupon companions Kind and Rochester were appointed for that purpose, who retired and introduced and presented him to the Grand Council and to the Companions, who welcomed him by a short address from Companion Rochester.
Resolved. That another committee be appointed to introduce the son of Companion La Fayette, vix., Companion George Washington Lafayette, and Companion Bond, Whitney, and Millard were appointed as said committee, who retired and introduced the same, together with the General’s private secretary, who were respectively presented to the Grand Council and to the Companions.
Minutes read and accepted, and chapter closed in due form.
Joel M. Parks, Secretary”15

* A.D. 1825

Once they concluded their meeting, the Masons led Lafayette to the basin above the unfinished five flights of locks. At 7 o’clock they boarded a packet boat “much more convenient and better provided with the comforts of life than could have been supposed.”16

On that slow boat to Rochester, they had probably the best night’s sleep in Western New York.

Too good a sleep if you ask the horde of people unfortunately waiting for them at King’s Basin outside their next stop.

Next Week: Remembering Silvius Hoard

1 Klements,  Elizabeth, “Alexander Ramsey Thompson (1793–1837),” Veterans Legacy Program, The University of Central Florida & the National Cemetery Administration [retrieved June 10, 2024]
2 “The Progress of La Fayette,” Albany Argus, Tuesday, June 14, 1825, p.2
3 Levasseur, André-Nicolas, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Volume II, John D. Godman translation, Philadelphia, Carey and Lea, 1829, p. 190-191
4 “The Progress of La Fayette”
5 A History of the City of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, The Times, Buffalo, NY, 1896, p. 346
6 “Lafayette in Lockport,” The New York Times, Tuesday, May 8, 1883, p.5
7 O’Reilly, Henry, Settlement in the West, Sketches of Rochester, William Ailing, Rochester, 1838 p. 382-383
8 Ibid., p. 184
9 Levasseur, p. 191
10 Lewis, Clarence O., “Howell Tavern One of Oldest,” Niagara Falls, Gazette, Wednesday, April 2, 1969, p. 37
11 History of Niagara County, Sanford & Co, New York, 1878, p. 229
12 Ibid., p. 231
13 Levasseur, p. 191
14 Ibid., p. 192
15 “Lafayette in Lockport,” The New York Times, Tuesday, May 8, 1883, p.5
16 Levasseur, p. 192

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