Chautauqua County had role during War of 1812
The War of 1812, sometimes known as America’s second war of Independence, had an impact on the foundation of Chautauqua County.
The war was between the British and Native Americans on one side, and Americans and other Native Americans on the other. The British and Native Americans who joined them were unhappy with the results of the Revolutionary War, and the British had yet to respect America as an independent nation. While the War of 1812 is often an overlooked, smaller war, it is the war that resulted in respect from Britain and the eventual acknowledgment of America as an independent nation.
The war has a significant role in Chautauqua County, with the county being basically on the front lines, and formed right before the war began.
“The British controlled Canada and Lake Erie,” said Traci Langworthy, associate professor of history at SUNY Jamestown Community College. “Chautauqua County had just been very sparsely settled, meaning about 500 people lived there. Those people became concerned that the British would come and invade their homes, and some even sent family members away because of it. The British wanted to keep control of the Lake Erie region for access to supplies and things, and were known to raid civilian settlements along the shore for resources. So this fear was reasonable. The British did not hesitate to raid homes and taverns and harass people and steal things.”
An early figure that made a mark in the area during this time, Langworthy said, was the Rev. John Spencer — an early missionary from Sheridan who came to Chautauqua County from the Western New York Congregationalist church.
“He sort of ended up as a war correspondent,” Langworthy said. “He was charged with sending letters back to his superiors and ended up getting, in great detail, some of the actions of the British that people were worried about and focusing on, or what the settlers were doing at the time. It ended up as a wonderful, historic record.”
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Spencer is also an early founder of many churches in Western New York.
A notable event for Chautauqua County during the War of 1812 is of the burning of Buffalo. What is now the city of Buffalo began as a settlement known as Black Rock, one of the first settlements on the shores of Lake Erie, that was attacked and burned by the British toward the end of the war.
“It’s believed that this was in retaliation to America burning a settlement in Canada,” Langworthy said. “It did provide a real danger for civilians there, and many people fled. The militia from Chautauqua County was sent there to try and defend Buffalo. Unfortunately, they were not successful, but it is important to note that these militias were made up of men that were just everyday people who were drilled once a month and called up by regular soldiers when there was fighting in the area. Most of the fighting in Chautauqua County was done by these militias.”
But, the biggest item of note when it comes to Chautauqua County and the War of 1812 is the local legend that the first shots of the war were fired in Dunkirk.
“We did research on this back in 2012 at the anniversary mark,” Langworthy said. “We have pretty definitive evidence now that the first shots were not fired in Dunkirk. But, there were two skirmishes toward the beginning of the war that did happen in Dunkirk.”
Both skirmishes happened on Canadaway Creek in Dunkirk where a warehouse was located. It is believed that the British wanted access to the warehouse for supplies.
“The first skirmish, which happened on Sept. 26, 1812, was thought to be either because the British wanted access to this warehouse, or because they were chasing an American rowboat that had hidden in the creek entrance,” Langworthy said. “The British sent a rowboat to the shore and it was fired on by American militiamen who had volunteered to defend the shore. There is evidence that three British were hit when fired on.”
The second skirmish was smaller and occurred in July 1813 at the same location, because the British were still aiming for access to the warehouse.
“It was a lifeline for supplies and boat traffic,” Langworthy said. “It was known to store salt, which back then was more important because it was used to store food before refrigerators, and it is believed that the British knew that and wanted it, leading to what seems like another attempt to come ashore. There is also evidence that some British soldiers were looking to desert and might have been trying to come and stay. There are some pretty colorful stories of British landings there, which might be the source of the legend that got passed down.”
For the Chautauqua County area, Langworthy said the War of 1812 has more historical significance than the Revolutionary War, because the land had not even been purchased as a part of New York at that time. Following the War of 1812, there was a surge of patriotism because of this.
“Following the war, a lot of the patriotism that we see today and we celebrate on Independence Day came from events during that war,” Langworthy said. “The Star Spangled Banner was written because Francis Scott Key witnessed the battle at a Maryland fort and then saw the flag waving after it. There was a reprise of patriotism in the country following it because after the War of 1812 we had proven that at least for white settlers, not so much Native Americans, we had earned our status as an independent nation.”