BUFFALO — What happened along the Niagara Frontier, 200 years ago next week, is so unimaginable, that most contemporary residents are unaware of its historical significance.
Primarily as an act of revenge, British troops and their Native American allies descended upon Youngstown, Lewiston and Black Rock, destroying most of the property in their path. Then, on Dec. 30, 1813, they overcame meager resistance in the hamlet known as Buffalo and put it to the torch.
There was virtually no military presence left, along the eastern side of the Niagara River, with the powerful guns of Fort Erie within eyesight. The nearest encampments of American troops were at the present site of Delaware Park and in Williams Mills, the settlement that would eventually become Williamsville.
We must remember the date, not only for the loss of life in Western New York, but for the strength and resilience shown by civilians and soldiers alike in the days, weeks and months that followed the attack.
The 15-star, 15-stripe American flag that flew over those local garrisons is the same one that would inspire Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem, nine months later, while anxiously awaiting the end of the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
For those reasons, I have spent months urging that every public building in Erie County and vicinity fly the 15-star flag on Dec. 30, 2013. The anniversary occurs next Monday.
With their homes and businesses reduced to ashes, many terrified Buffalo residents fled east, along the primary road leading to Batavia – today’s Main Street. Others sought refuge in Lancaster, Hamburg and beyond. They were seeking more than shelter; there was a genuine fear that the British would pursue them into what was then a wilderness.
Just a couple of months earlier, in October 1813, a large tent city had been erected along what is now Garrison Road in Williamsville. As many as 5,000 soldiers may have bivouacked there. This security led directly to the formal establishment of the village of Williamsville, 37 years later.
Meanwhile, a printing press was hauled east, as far as Harris Hill, so that one of Buffalo’s newspapers, the Buffalo Gazette, could continue to publish.
Life would go on, for the hearty residents of Buffalo.
Until that day, the War of 1812 had seemed to be a distant dispute, that began on the high seas. Caught in the middle were native North Americans, misled into thinking that a British military victory would ensure establishment of a separate nation, lying somewhere between upper Canada and what would remain of the United States. Yet, many British leaders saw the war as an opportunity to settle the score, for the loss of the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Toppling the U.S. government could mean that the 15 fledgling states would return to British rule.
Suddenly, the war landed on our ancestors’ doorsteps. The Niagara Frontier was one of only a handful of places where lands controlled by the two warring nations abutted each other. Controlling the Niagara River was vital to our national security.
American troops were reinforced the following spring, with bloody battles being fought at Scajaquada Creek on the U.S. side of the border, and Fort Erie, Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane, across the river. The hospital at Williams Mills was expanded to handle the steady flow of sick and injured from both armies. The primitive burial ground, on present-day Aero Drive near Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, became the final resting place for an estimated 600 combatants. Many are unidentified.
The costly conflict dragged on, throughout the following year. On the 27th of August, Lt. Sylvanus Felton made the ultimate sacrifice at Fort Erie. His mortal remains are buried in Clarence.
It would be more than four months until the war officially ended, with no territory being conquered or exchanged. The most important lesson learned, since then, is that we have been at peace with Great Britain for nearly 200 years.
The day Buffalo burned must not be forgotten. Fifteen stars never shone so brightly.
David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.