200 years ago, the village of Buffalo burned

Posted December 30, 2013  by The Buffalo News Source

Commemorations held well before anniversary

Two hundred years ago this week, the fledgling village of Buffalo was left a smoking pile of rubble.

But the bicentennial of the burning of Buffalo by British troops passed quietly Monday with little theatrics.

It’s not that people forgot about the 200th anniversary of one of the city’s major historical moments.

All the flair – the bonfire, the re-enactors, the speeches – actually took place a few weeks ahead of the big day.

The binational “Flames Over Niagara” earlier this month commemorated the night, two centuries ago, that British troops set fire to the villages of Black Rock and Buffalo. A gathering on Squaw Island, spearheaded by the Black Rock Historical Society, was one of a series of events that will continue through 2014 on both sides of the border to mark the War of 1812.

And at Old Fort Niagara, about 175 re-enactors from Canada and the United States gathered before dawn to re-create the capture of the fort on Dec. 19 at what was believed to be the 200th anniversary of the precise moment when the attack took place. Later that evening, a bronze statue thanking the Tuscarorans for helping the villagers of Lewiston as they fled from the British was unveiled to great fanfare, complete with its own re-enactment.

But for the burning of Buffalo, there wasn’t quite so much enthusiasm for marking the actual anniversary.

Although it wasn’t completely ignored Monday.

The actual anniversary of the burning of Buffalo was marked in quiet ways. The Village of Williamsville, where some refugees of the 1813 fire fled, raised a 15-star flag. Visitors at the Central Library could view a map depicting early Buffalo a few months before it was torched. On Saturday, Griffins Mills Presbyterian Church in West Falls held a living history program.

The biggest commemorative event – a bonfire on Squaw Island to mark the burning of the two villages – was held earlier this month out of concern that the holiday week would dampen attendance and in the interest of coordinating with similar efforts in Canada.

The fact that the commemoration happened a few weeks ahead of the anniversary dates of Dec. 29 and Dec. 30 didn’t lessen the significance for those involved.

“People get a better understanding of what it was like for the people to have their houses burned and have to leave them and take off and run in the freezing cold weather,” said Doreen DeBoth, president of the Black Rock Historical Society. “It was terrible for the people then to be burned out of their houses.”

The fires on the U.S. side of the border began Dec. 19, 1813, as British troops, vengeful over the burning of what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., attacked Fort Niagara and set fire to Youngstown. Ten days later, in the late night of Dec. 29 and the early morning of Dec. 30, the British crossed the Niagara River and set fire to Black Rock and Buffalo. They returned Jan. 1 to finish the destruction.

Just three out of about 180 buildings in Buffalo at the time survived, and an estimated 400 to 500 people fled to nearby communities. Many residents didn’t return until spring.

“It was an event that touched everybody who was here on the Niagara Frontier back then,” Erie County Historian Douglas Kohler said.

Cross-border planning for the War of 1812 commemorations started more than six years ago but were overshadowed in the early planning stages when then-Gov. David A. Paterson vetoed legislation that would have created a state commission to organize events to mark the 200th anniversary. The Canadian government, by comparison, dedicated millions of dollars to commemorating the war.

Since then, however, the binational Niagara 1812 Legacy Council has helped coordinate events throughout the region in Ontario and New York, including the re-enactment at Old Fort Niagara. Also, the Buffalo History Museum has sponsored a monthly lecture series and has an ongoing exhibit exploring the key events of the War of 1812.

Several grassroots efforts, including those by the Black Rock Historical Society, have also helped organize events to mark battles in New York. In August, the Black Rock Historical Society will mark the Battle of Scajaquada Creek Bridge.

“The events that have taken place have been more meaningful because they’re driven by the people of the communities that have been affected,” Kohler said. “In that way, I think, they’ve been really important and have been really very valuable to commemorating the history.”

As U.S. and Canadian historians look to wrap up three years of war commemorations, they have begun to think about how to close out the events by focusing on the 200 years of peace that followed.

“Since those last shots were fired in November of 1814, this is a large, undefended, peaceful border, and it’s been that way for 200 years,” said Kohler. “That’s sort of the one last piece.”

Next year, historians will mark the 200th anniversary of the Dec. 24, 1814, peace treaty that ended the war, as well as several major battles in Canada, including the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane.

“There’s another year still to go of the bicentennial action,” said Jerome P. Brubaker, assistant director of Old Fort Niagara Association Inc.